Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton has withdrawn an advertisement depicting Catholic Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egypt's Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb after the doctored photo caused an outcry among Vatican officials.
The photo montage was initially released by Benetton as part of its “Unhate Project,” which was launched on Wednesday and featured different versions of political adversaries passionately kissing one another on the lips.
In one photo, US President Barack Obama is seen kissing Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez; another shows French President Nicholas Sarkozy kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But it was the photoshopped pope-sheikh make-out session that caused the most controversy, with the Vatican immediately releasing a statement condemning the ad as “unacceptable.”
"We must express the firmest protest for this absolutely unacceptable use of the Holy Father's image, manipulated and exploited in a publicity campaign for commercial ends," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi declared in the statement. "This shows a grave lack of respect for the pope, an offence to the feelings of believers… it is a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect."
Benetton, for its part, hastily issued a formal apology, stressing that it was "sorry that the use of the image had so hurt the sensibilities of the faithful."
Egypt's Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the Sunni-Muslim world, recently severed ties with the Vatican after Benedict released a statement condemning attacks on Christians in Muslim countries.