By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Friday excoriated politicians who foment fear of migrants, saying they were sowing violence and racism, and urged them to "practise the virtue of prudence" to help them integrate.
The pope, who has made defense of migrants and refugees a major plank of his papacy, made his comments in a message prepared for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace, which is celebrated on Jan. 1 each year.
The message, whose title for 2018 is "Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace", is traditionally sent to heads of state and government and international institutions.
The message is being released as migration has become a top political issue in countries including the United States, Italy, Australia and Germany.
"Many destination countries have seen the spread of rhetoric decrying the risks posed to national security or the high cost of welcoming new arrivals, and doing so demeans the human dignity due to all as sons and daughters of God," he wrote.
"Those who, for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia, which are matters of great worry for all those concerned about the safety of every human being," he said.
In elections in Germany in September, the far-right and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made significant gains, with electors punishing Chancellor Angela Merkel for her open-door policy and pushing migration policy to the top of the agenda in talks to form a coalition government.
Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League, whose leader Matteo Salvini often gives fiery speeches against migrants, is expected to make gains in national elections next year.
Francis urged governments to make legal immigration easier but said that leaders should also recognize that many people move "mainly out of desperation, when their own countries offer neither safety nor opportunity, and every legal pathway appears impractical, blocked or too slow".
In the United States, President Donald Trump has promised to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out, something the pope has criticized in the past.
The pope said richer countries should show "a spirit of compassion" toward those forced to flee war, hunger, discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation.
He acknowledged that immigrants can sometimes "compound numerous existing problems" and that leaders have a "clear responsibility toward their own communities"; but practical ways had to be found to welcome newcomers, who can enrich society with their cultures, skills and energy.
"By practicing the virtue of prudence, government leaders should take practical measures to welcome, promote, protect, integrate and, within the limits allowed by a correct understanding of the common good, to permit (them) to become part of a new society," he said.
Francis urged the United Nations to make "compassion, foresight and courage" the foundations for global compacts on migration and refugees that the world body is preparing for next year.
"Only in this way can the realism required of international politics avoid surrendering to cynicism and to the globalization of indifference," Francis said.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Ralph Boulton)