Pope Francis has criticized laws criminalizing homosexuality as «unjust,» saying God loves all his children just the way they are, and called on Catholic bishops who support the laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

«Being gay is not a crime,» Francis said during an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.

Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against the LGBTQ community, and he himself referred to the issue in terms of «sin.» But he attributed such attitudes to cultural background and said bishops in particular need to go through a process of change to recognize the dignity of all.

«These bishops have to undergo a conversion process,» he said, adding that they must apply «tenderness, please, as God has it with each one of us.»

Some 67 countries or jurisdictions around the world criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of which can or do impose the death penalty, according to The Human Dignity Trust, which is working to end such laws. Experts say that even when laws are not enforced, they contribute to harassment, stigma and violence against LGBTQ people.

In the US, more than a dozen states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, despite a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that declared them unconstitutional. Gay rights advocates say outdated laws are being used to harass gays and point to new laws, such as Florida’s «Don’t Say Homosexual» law, which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten Kindergarten through third grade, as proof. of ongoing efforts to marginalize LGBTQ people.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for an end to laws that criminalize homosexuality altogether, saying they violate the rights to privacy and non-discrimination and violate countries’ obligations under international law to protect rights. human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. or gender identity.

Declaring such laws «unjust,» Francis said the Catholic Church can and must work to end them. “You must do this. You must do this,” he said.

Francis cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church in saying that homosexuals must be welcomed and respected, and must not be marginalized or discriminated against.

«We are all children of God, and God loves us just as we are and for the strength with which each one of us fights for our dignity,» Francis said, speaking to the AP at the Vatican hotel where he lives.

Such laws are common in Africa and the Middle East and date from British colonial times or are inspired by Islamic law. Some Catholic bishops have vigorously defended them as consistent with Vatican teaching that homosexual activity is «intrinsically disordered,» while others have called for them to be struck down as a violation of basic human dignity.

In 2019, Francis was expected to issue a statement opposing the criminalization of homosexuality during a meeting with human rights groups that have conducted research on the effects of such laws and so-called «conversion therapy.»

In the end, the Pope did not meet with the groups, but met with Vatican No. 2, who reaffirmed «the dignity of every human person and against all forms of violence.»

On Tuesday, Francis said there had to be a distinction between a crime and a sin regarding homosexuality.

“Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said. “It is not a crime. Yes, but it is a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.»

«It is also a sin to lack charity with one another,» he added.

Catholic teaching holds that while homosexuals are to be treated with respect, homosexual acts are «intrinsically disordered.» Francis hasn’t changed that teaching, but he has made reaching out to the LGBTQ community a hallmark of his papacy.

Starting with his famous 2013 statement, «Who am I to judge?» when asked about an allegedly gay priest, Francis went on to repeatedly and publicly minister to the gay and trans community. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he favored granting legal protections to same-sex couples as an alternative to endorsing gay marriage, which Catholic doctrine prohibits.

Despite such outreach, Francis was criticized by the LGBTQ Catholic community for a 2021 decree from the Vatican’s office of doctrine that the church cannot bless same-sex unions «because God cannot bless sin.»

In 2008, the Vatican refused to sign a UN statement calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, complaining that the text went beyond its original scope and also included language about «sexual orientation» and «gender identity» that it considered problematic. In a statement at the time, the Vatican urged countries to avoid «unfair discrimination» against homosexuals and end sanctions against them.