Vatican spokesman said advert showed 'a serious lack of respect for the Pope' and was offensive to Catholics

The Italian fashion house Benetton has withdrawn an advert depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing a Muslim leader hours after it was condemned by the Vatican.

The campaign is entitled “Unhate” and features doctored images of supposedly antagonistic world leaders in kissing scenes. The Vatican said the image of Pope Benedict embracing Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, president of al-Azhar University in Cairo, who announced the suspension of dialogue with the Vatican earlier this year, was offensive.

The ads were unveiled yesterday and a few hours later the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, registered a strong protest. He condemned what he called “a completely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father, manipulated and exploited in the context of a publicity campaign for commercial ends”.

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Shortly afterward, the image was gone from the website of the Unhate Foundation. The Italian news agency ANSA reported that a company spokesman said it had withdrawn the image.

Fr Lombardi said the image represented “a serious lack of respect for the Pope, an offence to the sentiments of the faithful and a clear demonstration of how fundamental rules of respect for people can be violated by advertising, in order to attract attention through provocation”.

Fr Lombardi said the Vatican’s Secretary of State was considering what steps to take in order to guarantee “respect for the figure of the Holy Father”.

In the past, Benetton has employed shocking images in its advertising campaigns. One ad in 1991 depicted a priest kissing a nun.

Other images in the current campaign portray President Barack Obama kissing Chinese leader Hu Jintao and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embracing Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

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