Pope Francis arrives for an ecumenical Mass in Lund, Sweden, on Oct. 31, 2016. (Andrew Medichini/Reuters)

As politicians around the world including President Trump take an increasingly hard line on immigration, a powerful force is rallying to the side of migrants: the Roman Catholic Church led by Pope Francis.

Catholic cardinals, bishops and priests are emerging as some of the most influential opponents of immigration crackdowns backed by right-wing populists in the United States and Europe. The moves come as Francis, who has put migrants at the top of his agenda, appears to be leading by example, emphasizing his support for their rights in sermons, speeches and deeds. 

The pro-migrant drive risks dividing Catholics — many of whom in the United States voted for Trump. Some observers say it is also inserting the church into politics in a manner recalling the heady days of Pope John Paul II, who stared down communism and declared his opposition to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Vatican is standing in open opposition to politicians like Trump not just on immigration but also on other issues, including climate-change policy.

But the focal point is clearly migrant rights. 

Eritrean migrants sit on a Proactiva Open Arms rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea, about 56 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, on April 6, 2017. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

In the United States, individual bishops, especially those appointed by Francis, have sharply criticized Trump’s migrant policies since his election. They include Newark Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who last month co-led a rally in support of a Mexican man fighting deportation. Tobin has decried Trump’s executive orders on immigration, calling them the “opposite of what it means to be an American.”

In Los Angeles, Archbishop José H. Gomez, the first Mexican American vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which leads the U.S. church, described migrant rights as the bishops’ most important issue. He has delivered blistering critiques of Trump’s policies, and instructed his clerics to distribute cards in English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese informing migrants of their rights in 300 parishes .

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, one of Francis’s closest allies in the U.S. church, has issued orders that if federal immigration authorities should attempt to enter churches without a warrant in search of migrants, priests should turn them away and call the archdiocese’s lawyers. Catholic school principals were given the same instructions by the archdiocese, which Cupich said was an attempt to respond in a way that was firm “but not extreme.”

He said Francis has helped bishops shape their response.

“The pope makes it a lot easier for me to be a bishop because he’s very clear in his teaching, and [on] this one in particular, he’s trying to awaken the conscience of the citizens of the world,” Cupich said. 

Francis has long been an advocate of migrants — kicking off his papacy in 2013 with a trip to an Italian island used as a waypoint for migrants desperate to enter Europe. In a highly public spat early last year, Francis and Trump exchanged barbs — with Francis declaring that anyone who wants to build walls “is not Christian.” 

Speculation is building that Trump and Francis may meet during the U.S. president’s trip to Italy for a Group of Seven meeting in May. Since the November election, Francis has sidestepped direct criticism of Trump and other populist leaders like French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen — while at the same time forcefully condemning the dangers of populism. 

“I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges,” Francis said in February on an international day of prayer against human trafficking. “To not respond to evil with evil. To defeat evil with good. . . . A Christian would never say, ‘You will pay for that.’ Never.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson, one of the Vatican’s most senior voices, said last month that it was wrong to portray the Holy See as “against” Trump. But a day earlier, he said that the Vatican was counting on the U.S. Catholic Church — as well as checks and balances — to stop Trump’s policies. 

“Luckily there are dissenting voices, contrary voices, in the U.S., in explicit disagreement with Trump’s positions,” Turkson said at a Vatican news conference, according to Italy’s ANSA news service. “His immigration ban was blocked by a lawyer in Hawaii. That is a sign that there can be another voice, and hopefully, via political means, gradually Trump himself will start rethinking some of his decisions.” 

Those who have the pope’s ear say Francis is seeking to counter anti-migrant policies by appealing directly to voters. 

“I don’t think the pope is challenging [the politicians]. I think he is challenging their supporters, both those who actively support them and those who passively allow their policies to happen,” said the Rev. Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Vatican’s new Section for Refugees and Migrants, which opened in January, just before Trump took office. Czerny reports directly to the pope — a sign of the importance of the new office.

“Mr. Trump or Ms. Le Pen are not the root of the problem,” ­Czerny continued. “The root of the problem is the fear, selfishness and shortsightedness that motivate people to support them.”

The issue is hardly limited to Trump’s America. In Germany, for instance, the powerful conference of bishops last month raised eyebrows by strongly condemning the policies of an anti-migrant party in a statement that seemed to urge Germans not to vote for it. 

Heiner Merz, a German lawmaker from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, said he recently tangled with a pro-
migrant priest at an official event in Stuttgart. The priest, Merz said, publicly called him a “right-wing extremist.”

“I think it’s outrageous that priests preach party politics down from the pulpit,” Merz said.

Not all Catholic leaders have echoed the pope’s concerns. In some countries, such as Poland, prominent Catholic clerics have taken a different approach, generally supporting right-wing populists and their policies.

Conservative elements in the church, already chafing at some of Francis’s other statements, also say that the pope is in danger of overpoliticizing his office.

A small number of prominent clerics led by Cardinal Raymond Burke — a longtime Vatican insider who met in Rome with Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, in 2014 when he headed Breitbart News — have issued surprisingly public critiques of the pope’s more open stance on divorced Catholics and gays and lesbians. The pope’s pro-migrant stance may be feeding the concerns of those who see him as overly liberal. 

Roberto de Mattei, a critic of Francis and president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome, said that the church should play a “balancing role” in the migrant issue. “But if under Pope [Francis] the church sides with unchecked immigration, what then? [Right-wing] movements will accuse the church of colluding with Islam and pro-immigration movements.” 

Overall, U.S. Catholics tend to be generally supportive of migrants rights. But the November election revealed a strong political divide along racial and ethnic lines: Sixty percent of white Catholics supported Trump, while 67 percent of Hispanic Catholics backed Clinton, according to exit polls. Surveys also show a clear difference on immigration. Nearly 90 percent of Hispanic Catholics say that undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements should be able to stay in the United States, while 65 percent of white Catholics say the same thing, according to a 2015 Pew survey. 

Yet senior U.S. clerics have largely united behind the pope on the migrant issue. In the politically red state of Kansas, for instance, Catholic bishops issued a statement urging Trump to develop “generous and prudent immigration laws.” Even Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, seen as conservative, held a prayer service for immigrants and stated in a column that “how we treat [immigrants] will prove or disprove whether we take our Christian discipleship seriously.”

Senior U.S. clerics also opposed the Obama administration on a number of policies, including a health-care mandate to cover contraception. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, described the church’s religious freedom as the “raging issue” under Obama, while immigration is now the “raging issue” under Trump.

Baltimore’s archbishop, William E. Lori, said U.S. bishops agree with the Trump administration on some issues, including abortion and school choice. 

He added that previous popes have taken similar positions as Francis on immigration. But, Lori added, Francis is “perhaps more dramatic.” His trips, such as his 2016 visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, also connected his stance on migrants to politics.

“The poor is the hallmark of his papacy,” Lori said. “It will affect our priorities and it should.”

Bailey reported from New York. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.