Pope Francis said he does not fear a schism within the Roman Catholic Church, as criticism grows among conservatives of his liberal views on migrants, the protection of the environment and giving communion to divorcees.
Speaking on board the papal plane on his return from a trip to Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique, the Pope said he had been unfairly labelled “a Communist” by his critics, with the most vocal being conservative Catholics in the United States.
In his strongest remarks yet on the risk of a schism, he said there had been many doctrinal splits during the 2,000-year history of the Church, although he prayed there would not be another.
“I am not afraid of schisms. I pray that there will be none, because what is at stake is people’s spiritual health,” he told journalists on board the plane.
The Pope’s impassioned defence of migrants and refugees, his opposition to Donald Trump’s wall on the US-Mexico border, his sympathy towards homosexuals and his openness to remarried divorcees being allowed to take communion have earned him the ire of conservatives, particularly in the US.
He said he was open to discussing differences of opinion with his critics, some of whom have accused him of heresy and have called for his resignation.
“Let there be dialogue, let there be correction if there is an error, but the schismatic path is not Christian,” he said.
His critics were putting ideology over Catholic doctrine and deserved sympathy, not hostility.
“We need to be gentle with those who are tempted by these attacks, they are going through a tough time, we must accompany them gently,” he said.
The Catholic Church last suffered a schism in 1988, when Marcel Lefebvre, an ultra-traditionalist French archbishop, ordained bishops without papal permission and started his own movement.
Francis insisted that many of his views were similar to those of Pope John Paul II, who is regarded as an icon by conservatives, in part for his role in standing up to the USSR and bringing about the fall of Communism.
“The social things that I say are the same things that John Paul II said, the same things. I copy him. But they say: ‘the Pope is a communist.’”
He said he was happy for critics to address him openly, but condemned those who launched attacks in an underhand way.
"At least those who say something have the advantage of honesty in saying so. And I like that," he said. "I don't like criticism when it's under the table, when they smile at you and then then they try to stab you in the back.”
Echoing remarks that he has made throughout his papacy, he condemned populism and xenophobia, likening populist politicians to Adolf Hitler.
“Sometimes, in some places, I hear speeches being given that sound similar to those made by Hitler in 1934. It’s as if they want to return to the past in Europe.”
Xenophobia is “a human disease, like measles,” he said.
In an apparent reference to President Trump’s plans for a wall along the US border with Mexico, and European countries’ efforts to keep out refugees and migrants with razor wire fences, he said: “Xenophobia is a disease that enters a country, enters a continent, and we build walls. But walls leave only those who built them. Yes, they leave out many people, but those who remain inside the walls will be left alone. Xenophobia rides the waves of political populism.”
Francis criticised Mr Trump’s proposals for a border wall three years ago, saying that anyone who wants to build walls rather than bridges is “not Christian”.
The remark incensed the then Republican candidate, who said it was “disgraceful” that the pontiff should question his faith.
To the discomfort of some conservative Catholics, Francis has repeatedly warned that the excesses of capitalism are leaving millions of people behind, fueling social tensions and harming the planet.