ROME — In a message for the first U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements Feb. 16-19 in Modesto, California, Pope Francis told the summit of grassroots leaders on economic inequality that “no people is criminal and no religion is terrorist.”

The pope also urged participants to protect the earth, because “time is running out” and fight against “the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

The current system, Francis said, causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and the planet.

Present realities, he continued, “unless effectively dealt with,” can set off “processes of dehumanization which would be hard to reverse.”

Changing course beyond these “historic turning points,” meaning, the way the ongoing crisis is resolved, “will depend on people’s involvement and participation and, largely, on yourselves, the popular movements.”

The mission of the popular movements, Francis said, is to work locally, side by side among neighbors, in a self-organized way, to make communities thrive.

These movements represent a collection of non-governmental organizations, especially prominent in Latin America, including street sellers, fishermen, laborers, farmers, members of the “original peoples” and “cartoneros,” or people who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods.

Francis’s message was read both in English and Spanish by Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana, head of the Vatican’s office of Integral Human Development. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the PICO National Network are co-organizers of the event, together with Turkson’s office.

Some 700 faith and community leaders from 12 different countries are attending the four-day gathering that has been in the works since before the November presidential elections.

According to Father Michael Czerny, a close aide of Turkson and head of the section on Migrants and Refugees from the Integral Human Development Office, the organizers have been working on this meeting for several years, after attending previous ones held in Rome in Oct. 2014 and Nov. 2016, and the one in Bolivia in July 2015.

“As it turns out, it’s probably very timely,” Czerny told Crux on Feb. 7, of the fact that the gathering is happening in the United States right now.

Czerny is one of many speakers taking part, including Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, Bishop Oscar Cantú, of Las Cruces, and social Argentine leader Juan Grabois.

This is the first gathering of popular movements sponsored by the Vatican not attended by Pope Francis, but seeing that he visited the United States in 2015, his presence wasn’t expected.

The Argentine pontiff called on the grass root leaders not to be paralyzed by fear, a product of the current crisis, but to instead aknowledge both the danger and opportunity in order to advance.

“The grave danger is to disown our neighbors,” Francis wrote in his message. “When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus.”

Sooner or later, he said, the “moral blindness of this indifference comes to light,” and the hidden wounds caused by it become visible: “The unemployment is real, the violence is real, the corruption is real, the identity crisis is real, the gutting of democracies is real.”

Specifying that he wasn’t talking about anyone in particular but of a social and political process that flourishes throughout the world, Francis said that “the system’s gangrene cannot be whitewashed forever.

“Sooner or later the stench becomes too strong; and when it can no longer be denied, the same power that spawned this state of affairs sets about manipulating fear, insecurity, quarrels, and even people’s justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills onto a ‘non-neighbor’.”

A neighbor, he said, can be whomever is in need: “You must become a Samaritan” and also the “innkeeper from at the end of the parable to whom the Samaritan entrusts the person who is suffering.”

The Church, the Christian community, people of compassion and solidarity and social organizations are that innkeeper, Francis said.

The pontiff then spoke of the gathering’s commitment to fight for social justice, defend “our Sister Mother Earth” and to stand alongside migrants.

On this, Francis said he wanted to share two reflections.

The first one is the fact that the ecological crisis is real, and that a solid scientific consensus indicates “that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” He acknowledged that science is not necessarily “neutral,” because “many times it conceals ideological views or economic interests.

“However, we also know what happens when we deny science and disregard the voice of nature,” he said, asking Catholics but also native peoples, pastors and political leaders to avoid falling into denial and to instead defend creation because “time is running out.”

The second reflection he offered is one he’d given in November, during the World Meeting of Popular Movements held in Rome: “no people is criminal and no religion is terrorist. Christian terrorism does not exist, Jewish terrorism does not exist, and Muslim terrorism does not exist.”

He argued, instead, that the different forms of aggression and conflict find a fertile terrain among the poorer peoples, yet if they were given equal opportunities, things would be different.

“There are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions—and with intolerant generalizations they become stronger because they feed on hate and xenophobia,” Francis said. “By confronting terror with love, we work for peace.”