On board the papal plane (AFP) - Pope Francis described attacks on him by ultra-conservative US Catholics Wednesday as an "honour", minimising efforts by rebels to besmirch his papacy.
The ultra-conservative wing of the church in the United States frequently takes aim at Francis, saying he is not outspoken enough on abortion, too compassionate towards homosexuals and divorcees, and too accommodating towards Muslims.
"The American attacks on me are an honour," the Argentine -- elected in 2010 as the world's first Latin American pope -- said in reference to critics who accuse him of softening the Church's stance.
Francis made the comment on the papal plane as he set off on a three-nation tour of Indian Ocean African countries.
"The pope meant that he always considers criticism as an honour, especially when it comes from authorized persons, and in this case from an important country," said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
Nicolas Seneze, Vatican expert for French daily La Croix, said the pope's words showed he "has no intention of changing his ideas".
The pontiff's fiercest and most vocal critic is US cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a conservative heavyweight who has criticised in particular Francis's handling of the clerical paedophilia crisis, which Burke has blamed on homosexuality.
Burke and three other cardinals wrote a letter to the pope in 2016 saying that he should be sanctioned for confusing Catholics with his teachings, and a year later some 60 conservative priests accused Francis of "heresies".
Allegations last year by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican envoy to Washington, that Francis covered for a senior US cardinal accused of abuse increased speculation of a possible plot against him.
The pope's Wednesday comment "is going to enrage a lot of people in Catholic conservative circles in the US, who will continue their anti-Francis campaign", said Ines San Martin, Vatican correspondent for Crux, a Catholic news website.
Vatican watcher Edward Pentin said he thought it was "a complete myth that there is a conspiracy to bring down the pope".
"There are just people who are genuinely concerned about the direction taken by the pontificate," he said.