Pope Benedict XVI said on Monday he would resign at the end of the month because he no longer has the strength to fulfill the duties of his office, becoming the first chief pontiff since the 15th century to take such a step.
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The 85-year-old pope said he had noticed that his strength had deteriorated over recent months "to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
"For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter," he said according to a statement from the Vatican.
The Vatican said the pontiff would step down at 7 P.M. GMT on February 28, leaving the office vacant until a successor is chosen.
A Vatican official said he expected the period between Benedict's resignation and the election of successor to be "as brief as possible," perhaps by late March. He also said that the Pope would not take part in the conclave to choose his successor.
The Vatican spokesman said that the pope's decision left aides "incredulous". The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, in 1415, as part of a negotiated settlement to bring the end of the Great Western Schism.
Israeli chief rabbi Yona Metzger praised Pope Benedict's inter-religious outreach following the announcement, and said relations between Israel and the Vatican had never been better.
"During his period [as pope] there were the best relations ever between the church and the Chief Rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue," a spokesman quoted Metzger as saying after the pope announced he would resign. "I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam."
Metzger wished the pope "good health and long days," the spokesman said.
The German government said it was "moved and touched" by the surprise resignation of the German-born pope.
"As a Christian and as a Catholic, one can't help but be moved and touched by this," government spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a regular government news conference.
"The German government has the highest respect for the Holy Father, for what he has done, for his contributions over the course of his life to the Catholic Church. He has been at the head of the Catholic Church for nearly eight years. He has left a very personal signature as a thinker at the head of the Church, and also as a shepherd. Whatever the reasons for this decision, they must be respected," Seibert added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to make a statement on the matter at 2.30 P.M. GMT.
Jospeh Ratzinger, as he was called prior to his pontification, was appointed pope in 2005 at the age of 78, making him the oldest person after named to the Catholic Church's highest position.
The pope recently joined Twitter and gained 250,000 followers within hours. He plans tweets in eight languages.
The pope last visited Israel in 2009.