Pope Benedict XVI of the Roman Catholic Church has decided to resign from his post due to ill health, the Vatican has announced.
The Vatican ruled out depression or uncertainty as being behind the resignation, saying the move was not due to any specific illness, just advancing age.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."
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"The pope announced that he will leave his ministry at 8pm [19:00 GMT] on February 28," a Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said on Monday.
Benedict, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, is the 265th pope, and began his papacy on April 19, 2005.
The pope had announced his decision in Latin during a canonisation ceremony on Monday morning, Al Jazeera's Sabina Castelfranco reported from Bologna.
Castelfranco said the move to resign was "something that we have not seen in modern times".
Benedict, 85, said that he no longer had the strength to fulfil his duties, due to his advanced age, according to a statement from the Vatican.
"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.
The senior cardinal of the Vatican will take over Benedict's duties following his stepping down, until a conclave of Catholic Church cardinals can be held to choose his successor.
The conclave could be held as early as mid-March, as the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope does not have to be observed in this case.
The Vatican said that it expected the period between Benedict's stepping down and the selection of a successor to be "as brief as possible", and that a successor could be elected before Easter celebrations.
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Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement
Addressing the press following the announcement, spokesperson Lombardi said that senior Vatican figures had noticed that Benedict appeared "fatigued" and "exhausted" in fulfilling his duties in recent days.
Nevertheless, he said that the decision to step down left church officials "incredulous".
He asserted that it was in full compliance with Church law.
Benedict had hinted in a book of interviews in 2010 that he might resign if he felt he was no longer able to carry out his duties.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church".
After resigning, the former pope will move to a summer residence near Rome. After that, he will live in a former monastery within Vatican territory, Lombardi said.
Worthy of respect
Immediately following the announcement, Francois Hollande, the French president, said the decision was worthy of respect.
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"I have no special comment to make on this decision which is eminently respectable," Hollande said, adding that France "hails the pope who took this decision".
The German government said that it had "the highest respect" for Benedict.
"As a Christian and as a Catholic, one can't help but be moved and touched by this," said Steffen Seibert, a government spokesperson.
Yona Metzger, Israel's chief rabbi, praised Benedict's interfaith outreach programmes.
"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.
Benedict "will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions", David Cameron, the British prime minister, said.