Pope Francis makes West Bank plea for protection of children

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Pope Francis made an impassioned plea on Sunday for the protection of children at a mass in Bethlehem's Manager Square in the West Bank, where rights groups say minors are mistreated by Israel.

"Children are crying, they are crying a lot, and their crying challenges us," the Argentine pontiff told thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims in Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, on the second day of his Middle East pilgrimage.

"All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees," said the pontiff, famed for defending the sick, poor and downtrodden.

Francis was speaking ahead of a meeting with children in the Dheisheh refugee camp and a lunch with refugee families in a huge morale boost for Palestinians, who have called on him to help end Israeli occupation.

The pope made an unscheduled stop at the West Bank barrier after calling for an end to the "increasingly unacceptable" Israeli-Palestinian conflict before dedicating his mass to the theme of children.

He lambasted those who abandon children to sickness and hunger, a weapons trade that funnels arms into the hands of child-soldiers and those who use the slave labour of minors to produce their goods.

"Their cry is stifled: they must fight, they must work, they cannot cry! But their mothers cry for them. They weep for their children, and they refuse to be consoled," he said.

Children are "a marker indicating the health of families, society and the whole world," Francis said, speaking in front of a giant tableau of the birth of Jesus.

International rights groups have heavily criticised the treatment of Palestinian youngsters by Israel's military, with a report this month finding increasing numbers of arrested minors are placed in solitary confinement.

Under international pressure to introduce reforms, the Israeli army agreed last year to try alternative treatment of children detained in the West Bank, but the UN Children's Fund has warned of ongoing physical violence and verbal abuse.

A 2013 UNICEF report found Israel was the only country in the world to systematically try children in military courts, often after being aggressively awakened in the night by armed soldiers, blindfolded and deprived of sleep.

The vast majority of arrests are for throwing stones.