VATICAN CITY, JAN. 6, 2009 ( Benedict XVI appealed for the protection of children, especially those "denied a serene childhood," on a feast day that in many countries is a celebration the youngest members of society.

The Pope made his appeal today after praying the Angelus together with thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square. The Pontiff made a special request to armed groups in Congo to release children captured as soldiers.

"I call out to the authors of these inhuman brutalities to return these young people to their families and to a future of security and development, which is their right," the Pontiff said.

The Holy Father said acts such as these "are even more deplorable give that in 2009 the 20th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child will be celebrated." He encouraged the international community to renew their commitment to the convention and to "defend and promote childhood throughout the world."

After greeting the Eastern Churches, who follow the Julian calendar and will celebrate Christmas on Wednesday, Benedict XVI turned his attention to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

"I am deeply worried about the violent armed confrontations that are taking place on the Gaza border," he said.

The Pope affirmed that "the rejection of dialogue doesn't bring anything but war," and encouraged efforts to "help the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down at a table and talk."

"May God support the commitment of these builders of peace," he added.

International efforts are under way to propose a cease-fire between Israel and the Islamic militants of Hamas. The 11-day conflict has resulted in more than 600 deaths.