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The spiritual head of the world's Anglicans said it was with a “heavy heart” that he learned of Pope Benedict's decision on Monday to step down as pontiff, adding he fully sympathised with the decision.

“It was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that we learned this morning of Pope Benedict's declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global 80-million-strong Anglican Communion.

Welby, who only officially took over his role last week after his predecessor Rowan Williams resigned after a decade in the job, said he gave thanks to God for Benedict's life “utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ”.

“We pray that God will bless him profoundly in retirement with health and peace of mind and heart, and we entrust to the Holy Spirit those who have a responsibility to elect his successor,” Welby said in a statement. (Reuters/NAN)