Pope Francis condemned "unjust" legislation criminalizing same-sex relationships around the world, saying God loves all his children just as they are in his first interview since the death of former Pope Benedict XVI.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Pope Francis said "being homosexual is not a crime," and called on Catholic bishops who support persecutory laws around the world to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

He said the church must work to end such laws, while Catholic bishops who support them "have to have a process of conversion." Instead, the clergy should offer "tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us," he told the AP.

While Catholic teaching holds that homosexual acts are a "sin," being homosexual is not a "crime," said Francis. He stressed the need to distinguish between the two, and said, for example, that lack of charity with one another is also a sin.

At least 67 countries, the majority in Africa or the Middle East, have national laws against same-sex relations, while at least nine others have laws criminalizing gender expression that target transgender or other people, according to Human Rights Watch.

Experts say even where the laws are not enforced, they contribute to harassment, stigmatization, and violence against LGBTQ people.

The pope is set to visit South Sudan, one of the countries that criminalize homosexuality, in February.

Francis' comments were hailed by gay rights advocates as a gleaming milestone, as they were the first uttered by a pope about such laws. But they are also consistent with his overall approach to LGBTQ people, which has brought him criticism in the past.

Asked about the wave of criticism against him from conservative cardinals and bishops following Pope Benedict's death, Francis acknowledged the knives are out, but he appeared unfazed by the scuttle.

Despite his historically liberal attitude surrounding LGBTQ issues, the church still teaches that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered," and Francis has been unwilling to alter the official stance.

In 2008, before the arrival of Francis, the Vatican declined to sign onto a U.N. declaration that called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, noting that the text went beyond the original scope. In a statement at the time, the Vatican urged countries to avoid "unjust discrimination" against gay people and end penalties against them.

Later, when asked by the AP about his health, the 86-year-old pope, who has served since 2013 said, "I'm in good health for my age. I'm normal."

A knee ailment has forced him to use a wheelchair in recent months.