VATICAN CITY — The Vatican says it will take legal action against the Benetton clothing company over its ad featuring a fake photo montage of Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian imam on the lips.
The image is "offensive not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers," the Vatican said in a statement Thursday.
Benetton withdrew the ad immediately after its debut Wednesday after the Vatican denounced the Italian clothing firm's latest shock campaign as an unacceptable provocation.
Benetton had said its "Unhate" campaign, which also includes a fake photo of President Barack Obama kissing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is aimed at fostering tolerance.
On Wednesday, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called the unauthorized and "manipulative" use of the Pope's picture in the photo montage totally unacceptable.
"This is a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offense against the sentiments of the faithful and a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules of respect for people in order to attract attention through provocation," he said.
A large banner with the image of the Pope and the imam was hung from a bridge near the Vatican on Wednesday morning but later removed.
Benetton said the purpose of its campaign was "exclusively to fight the culture of hate in every form" but said it nontheless decided to withdraw the image.
"We are sorry that the use of an image of the pontiff and the imam should have offended the sensibilities of the faithful in this way," it said in a statement.
Other photo montages in the same campaign, in which Benetton says it supports the Unhate Foundation, show other world leaders kissing each other on the mouth.
The Italian clothing company has run controversial advertising campaigns in the past, including one that showed grieving parents at the bedside of a man dying of AIDS.