Pope Benedict XVI is to resign from the head of the Catholic Church on February 28, the Vatican confirmed in a statement on Monday, after he said he no longer had the strength to fulfill his duties adequately.
A Vatican press conference started at 11.40 a.m. London time. A Vatican spokesman said the decision "took us by surprise".
"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," the statement said.
A successor is expected to be appointed after the 85-year old Pope steps down at the end of the month. A conclave will have to be called at the Vatican but he will leave the office vacant until a successor is chosen. It is the first time in at least 600 years a pope has resigned.
Pope Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected in April 2005.
Mario Monti, the incumbent Italian Prime Minster, said he was "very shaken" by the news on the social media site Twitter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to react to the resignation of the German-born pope later on Monday, according to Reuters, and a government spokesman has already stated the country is "moved" by the news.
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