ROME Pope Francis on Sunday expressed support for Italians protesting over high unemployment, recession and austerity but urged them to reject the "temptation of violence".
The "Pitchfork Movement" was initially inspired by a group of Sicilian farmers but has grown into a wider wave of unrest expressing frustration with the government's failure to turn around the economy.
Protesters have marched in several cities, mostly peacefully, but some have blocked roads and disrupted trains. There were clashes with police in Turin, and accusations that shopkeepers were bullied to close their doors and join the movement.
After delivering his weekly prayer in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, Francis welcomed protesters.
"To those from Italy gathered today to demonstrate their social commitment, I hope that you make a constructive contribution, rejecting the temptations of confrontation and violence, and always following the path of dialogue in defending your rights," the pope said.
Francis has drawn huge crowds to the square since taking over from Benedict, who resigned in February. He has urged the church to become closer to the poor, more merciful and less condemning.
After seeing a banner in the square below reading "The Poor Cannot Wait", the pope said it was "beautiful", and spoke off-the-cuff about the gravity of Italy's growing homeless problem.
"Families and houses go together. It is very difficult for a family to make it without living in a house," he said during his last appearance in the square before Christmas.
"In these days of Christmas, I invite all - every person, every social organization, the authorities - to do everything possible to ensure that every family can have a home."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Gillian Hazell; editing by Andrew Roche)