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BERLIN – Many in Germany haven’t always had an easy relationship with the conservative-minded Pope Benedict XVI, but most offered praise Monday for their countryman’s courage in deciding to step down from his position amid failing health.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Protestant, said that the 85-year-old pope’s decision that he was no longer fit enough to continue in the job “earns my very highest respect.”

“In our time of ever-lengthening life, many people will be able to understand how the pope as well has to deal with the burdens of aging,” she told reporters here.

Two old acquaintances of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from his time at Germany’s University of Tuebingen, said they first thought the news was a joke.

“I didn’t expect it, but it was something I wouldn’t have put past him,” Max Seckler, a retired theology professor who worked with Ratzinger at Tuebingen in the 1960s, said in a telephone interview. “He was in many aspects of his papacy very innovative and unconventional.”

Seckler highlighted Benedict’s ability to form “a real friendship” with Jewish leaders and said that “he invigorated dialogue with Islam in a credible manner.”

He also highlighted the pontiff’s “patience” in seeking reconciliation with the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X.

That’s an issue that drew criticism in Germany, and even a public demand for clarification from Merkel, when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.

“He tried to present faith positively – his writings as pope served that – and he tried to foster reconciliation toward the right,” said Dietmar Mieth, professor emeritus of theology at Tuebingen, who first met Ratzinger in the 1960s. “But otherwise, he reacted reservedly to changes or reforms, and in ecumenism, there were rather symbolic actions than concessions of substance.”

Hans Kueng, a theologian who was an early colleague and friend of Ratzinger but later fell afoul of the Vatican for challenging church doctrine and became a vocal critic, told news agency dpa that he respected Benedict’s decision – “but it has to be hoped that Ratzinger will not exert influence on the election of his successor.”

He asserted that, given that Benedict has named many conservative cardinals, it would be hard to find someone “who could lead the church out of its many-layered crisis.”

Unlike Polish-born predecessor John Paul II, Benedict hasn’t enjoyed undivided admiration in his country, which is roughly evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, and where many didn’t appreciate his conservative approach.

The day after he was elected in 2005, best-selling newspaper Bild’s front page screamed “We are the Pope!”; but the left-leaning Tageszeitung countered with the headline “Oh, my God!”

Still, the pope commanded pride in Germany – particularly in his native Bavaria, where Gov. Horst Seehofer said:

“Germany and Bavaria have an infinite amount to thank him for.”