Vatican takes legal action over pope-imam kissing ad

Window of Benetton store in Paris, France, covered in poster showing Chinese President Hu Jintao kissing US President Barack Obama - 16 November 2011 The campaign - showing leaders kissing one another on the mouth - aims to "battle the culture of hate"

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The Vatican says it is taking legal action over the use of an ad showing Pope Benedict kissing a leading imam as part of a Benetton advertising campaign.

The Vatican move comes despite an announcement by the Italian clothing company that it was pulling the ad.

The ad, with its doctored image, is part of a global advertising campaign.

It consists of photo montages of political and religious leaders kissing each other on the mouth.

A statement said the Vatican had told its lawyers in Italy and around the world to "take the proper legal measures" to stop the use of the photo, even in the media.

It was not clear from the statement if the Vatican intended to sue Benetton directly for damages.

'Absurd'

The Vatican statement said the ad was "damaging to not only to dignity of the pope and the Catholic Church but also to the feelings of believers".

A spokesman for Egypt's al-Azhar institute, whose grand imam was pictured kissing the pope, described the advertisement as "irresponsible and absurd".

The spokesman, Mahmud Azab, told the French news agency AFP that the ad was so absurd that the institution was "still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response".

On Wednesday, Benetton pulled the ad showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egypt's Ahmed el Tayyeb, imam of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, after the Vatican launched a strong protest.

Other ads in the campaign feature US President Barack Obama kissing Chinese President Hu Jintao, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In an initial protest on Wednesday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi called the Benetton ad an "absolutely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father, manipulated and exploited in a publicity campaign with commercial ends.

"This shows a grave lack of respect for the pope, an offence to the feelings of believers, a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people by attracting attention with provocation," his statement said.

Shock ads

A large banner of the image showing the pope kissing the imam was hung from a bridge near the Vatican on Wednesday morning but later removed.

But on Thursday morning the picture was still in the window of a shop near Rome's Trevi Fountain, one of the most popular tourist sites in Rome.

The photo montage was still widely available on the internet on Thursday morning.

"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," Benetton said in a statement.

The purpose of the ad campaign, Benetton said in a statement, "was solely to battle the culture of hate in all its forms".

Benetton is no stranger to shock ad campaigns.

Previous controversial images it has used include death row inmates, a nun kissing a priest and a man dying of Aids.

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