Benedict XVI Becomes First Pope to Resign in 600 Years
Citing his deteriorating health, Pope Benedict XVI announced today he will resign on February 28. Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected in April 2005 as the first German pope in over 1,000 years, is also the first pontiff to step down since 1415, when Gregory XII left amid a leadership crisis created by the Western Schism of the 14th and 15th century. Only three other popes resigned during the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history. Speaking in Latin before a small group of cardinals at the Vatican, Benedict said he has come “to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his papal responsibilities. Catholics everywhere greeted the decision with a mix of shock and respect, although there was also fear of renewed controversy. Benedict’s papacy was tainted by multiple scandals of pedophilia and sexual abuse: victims say that in his former functions as a cardinal, he knew more than most about the clergy’s crimes and did nothing to stop them. World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and other Jewish leaders praised the departing pontiff, who was forcibly enlisted in the Hitler Youth as a boy then deserted the German army after being drafted, for “elevating Catholic-Jewish relations onto an unprecedented level.” “No pope before him made more strides to improve the relationship with the Jews,” Lauder said. After his departure, Benedict will live at a Vatican monastery.
Tunisian Party “Freezes” Resignations from Government
After threatening to leave Tunisia’s coalition government, President Moncek Marzouki’s centre-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) party said today it will “freeze” resignations for another week “for more discussions on a coalition government” with Islamic Ennahda party. After secular leader Chokri Belaid was killed yesterday, protesters took to the streets, sending the country into a spiral of violence. The CPR has demanded the departure of two Ennahda cabinet members, Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem. “Two days ago we presented the resignation of our ministers, but we were contacted yesterday evening by the leaders of Ennahda, who replied favourably to all our demands,” said CPR Leader Mohamed Abbou. “If in one week we don’t see any changes, we will quit the government.”
Syrian Government Ready for Talks with Opposition, Minister Says
The Syrian government is now ready to enter negotiations with the leader of opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Moaz al-Khatib, according to Bashar al-Assad’s Minister for Reconciliation Ali Haidar. “I am willing to meet Mr Khatib in any foreign city where I can go in order to discuss preparations for a national dialogue,” Haidar told The Guardian. Representatives of various armed groups and Syrian exiles, who are all represented by the SNC, criticized Khatib when he called for talks without demanding that Assad resign first. Haidar’s comment today was the first sign that Syria’s regime may be softening. Meanwhile, rebels seized a dam completed by Assad’s father in the 1970s and army tanks near the country’s capital Damascus and nine people died in a car explosion at the border with Turkey.
French, Malian Troops Hunt Down Islamic Rebels in Gao
The French army conducted a series of air strikes on Mali’s northern city of Gao today, bombing a police station and other buildings where Islamic rebels were said to hide. French and Malian troops have been hunting militants from house to house after fighters affiliated to Al Qaeda attempted to retake the city by crossing the Niger river at night. This new raid surprised the two armies, who initially faced little rebel resistance when they first arrived to Gao, an ancient Saharan trading post, a few weeks ago. “They took advantage of the two suicide attacks on Saturday and Sunday to infiltrate the town,” said Malian Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara. The developments fueled concern that France may find itself mired in a guerrilla war.
Pentagon Extends Benefits to Same-Sex Partners
A year and a half after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it will extend some benefits to the same-sex partners of members of the military. While housing and burial at Arlington Cemetery will still be reserved to heterosexual couples, the changes will affect 9,000 couples in active duty and another 8,000 in retirement, probably giving them access to health and welfare programs. The new rules will take effect in August. “While it will not change during my tenure as secretary of defense, I foresee a time when the law will allow the department to grant full benefits to service members and their dependents, irrespective of sexual orientation,” said outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.