© Gregorio Borgia/AP
The pope answers questions on a TV show, watched by Catholics in Rome.
The pope answers questions on Italian TV, but cannot explain the devastation caused by the tsunami

Pope Benedict ventured where no pope has gone before on Friday when he answered questions on an Italian television programme - and was stumped by the first. A Japanese girl asked the pope, who, she said, "speaks with God", why she was having to suffer so much as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that had struck her country.

"I am very frightened because the house where I felt safe really shook a lot and many children my age have died. I cannot go to play in the park. I want to know: why do I have to be so afraid? Why do children have to be so sad?" said seven-year-old Elena.

Benedict admitted: "I also have the same questions: why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease?

"And we do not have the answers, but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent, and that the true God who is revealed in Jesus is by your side."

Whether Elena was satisfied with that answer was unclear. But the studio audience gave the pope a hearty round of applause.

The Japanese girl's question was one of seven fielded by Benedict in an unprecedented exercise. His predecessor, John Paul II, once made a surprise call to a television programme on the 20th anniversary of his papacy. And Benedict himself broke new ground with a Thought for the Day broadcast by BBC Radio 4 last Christmas Eve. But no pope has ever before submitted himself to questioning on television, or indeed radio, in the way Benedict did for a special Good Friday programme on the first channel of the state-owned RAI network.

The presenter, Rosario Carello, initially addressed the pope as "holy father" and told him his presence on the programme "fills us with joy". But thereafter, the reverential tone Italian broadcasters usually employ for papal occasions was wholly lacking.

The atmosphere was briskly professional as the show cut between the pope's answers - pre-recorded in his study in the Vatican - and comments from a panel of three studio guests who also replied to other questions from viewers. The pope's fellow guests added to the air of informality: one was a poet and columnist in an open-necked shirt; another, the founder of a charity for young runaways who sported a leather jacket and spiky hair.

The usually retiring Benedict's participation was the latest sign of an apparently growing willingness to co-operate with the media.

Carello told viewers the pope had initially agreed to answer only three questions, but so many were submitted that the programme-makers asked - and Benedict agreed - that the number be doubled.

Then, he said, they received a question from a Muslim woman in the Ivory Coast that was so topical and moving that they were loth not to include it. So the number was raised to seven.

Bintu, who greeted the pope in Arabic, asked him for his advice on how to put an end to the violence in her country. Benedict said he was "saddened that I can do so little", but said he had asked a senior Vatican official to try to mediate.

Most of the other questions were about issues of Catholic faith, including one from an Italian woman who wanted to know if her son, who had been in a vegetative coma for two years, still had a soul.

"Certainly," the pope replied. He urged her to keep up her vigil at his side, saying that her "presence enters into the depths of that hidden soul".