Pope Francis said Catholics should treat compassion for migrants and the poor as equal to opposing abortion.

The Argentine pontiff warned followers to not ‘relativise’ their faith and giving some rules ‘excessive importance’ and treating others as ‘secondary’.

The 61-year-old issued a strong rebuke to critics of his emphasis on helping others who complained he was not strong enough on moral teachings.

‘Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the (Holy) Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few,’ he said.

‘This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting.’

Pope Francis was writing in his third apostolic exhortation –  a 100-page guideline on how Catholics could strive for ‘holiness’ in the modern world.

He encouraged believers to be ‘the saint next door’ focusing on mercy and charity as Jesus did, rather than upholding strict rules.

The exhortation was widely seen as a dig at conservative Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere who staunchly upheld tradition on abortion, homosexuality, and divorce while pushing anti-migrant laws.

The pope accused them of being caught in ‘the thicket of precepts and prescriptions’ and disregarding those less fortunate.

‘Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development,’ he wrote.

‘Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged,

‘The vulnerable infirm and the elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.’

‘We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.’

Pope Francis stressed this included the plight of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, putting him at odds with a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in many parts of the world.

‘Some Catholics consider the situation of migrants to be a secondary issue,’ he wrote.

‘That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.

‘Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him?’

Citing a passage from the Old Testament urging the welcoming of foreigners, Francis remarked sharply that the issue was not ‘a notion invented by some pope, or a momentary fad’.

‘In today’s world too, we are called to follow the path of spiritual wisdom proposed by the prophet Isaiah to show what is pleasing to God,’ he said.

Pope Francis then quoted another verse: ‘Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him…?’

In April 2016, he flew to the Greek island of Lesbos on the frontline of the migrant crisis and returned to Rome with three families of Syrian Muslims.

The pontiff also took the opportunity to reiterate his staunch opposition to abortion in the text entitled ‘Gaudete et exsultate’ (Rejoice and be glad).

‘Our defence of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate,’ he said, adding that the ‘lives of the poor’ were ‘equally sacred.’

The first years of Francis’ papacy were peppered with strong words against governments, which he has accused of not doing enough to welcome the millions of refugees and migrants fleeing their home countries.

But over the years, he has moderated his discourse, suggesting that host countries had the right to regulate the number of arrivals according to their capacity to accommodate and integrate foreigners.

‘There are those who feel encouraged by the pope’s stance on migrants and it is still a majority,’ Christophe Dufour, archbishop of the French city of Aix-en-Provence, told AFP.

‘And there is a small number who say: ‘he is naive, let him come and live among migrants, it is not so simple’.’

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