Vatican Prepares Legal Action Against Benetton Over Ad Showing Pope Kissing Imam

The Vatican said Thursday it would take legal action against Benetton after the Italian fashion label used a photo purportedly showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading imam in a publicity campaign.

The Vatican "has instructed its lawyers, in Italy and abroad, to take appropriate action" to prevent the circulation of the image, including in the mass media, it said in a statement.

The image offended "not only the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also the sensibilities of believers," the statement added.

The picture, used in the company's "Unhate" publicity campaign, showed the pope embracing one of Islam's leading figures, Ahmed Mohamed el Tayeb, the imam of the al Azhar mosque in Egypt.

The Egyptian mosque described the image Thursday as "irresponsible and absurd," AFP reported.

In fact, so absurd was the concept that the al Azhar "is still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response," a spokesman for Tayeb said.

The Vatican said Wednesday that it was outraged by the picture. It expressed "the firmest protest for this absolutely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father, manipulated and exploited in a publicity campaign with commercial ends."

The Italian company has said it would pull the photo. It was "sorry that the use of the image had so hurt the sensibilities of the faithful ... The point of this campaign was solely to battle the culture of hate in all its forms," a statement said.

In other "Unhate" photos, US President Barack Obama locks lips with China's Hu Jintao and with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, while Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu smooches Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Alessandro Benetton, deputy chairman of Benetton and son of the founder of the family-controlled company, said originally he did not expect complaints from those in the pictures because the message was one of peace.

"It means not hating," Benetton said. "In a moment of darkness, with the financial crisis, what's going on in North African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy."