The Italian clothing company Benetton has been heavily criticized by the Vatican for using an image of Pope Benedict kissing an imam on the mouth in its latest shock advertising campaign.
The controversial image, which was hung from a bridge near the holy city early today, shows the Pope embracing Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, one of Islam’s leading figures.
Other images in the campaign, which is part of the Benetton’s support for the Unhate Foundation, show various world leaders kissing on the mouth.
The campaign includes a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama kissing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi called the unauthorized and “manipulative” use of the pope’s picture in the photo montage “totally unacceptable” and suggested it might take legal action against the company.
“This is a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offence 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,” Federico Lombardi said in a statement.
Benetton has run controversial advertising campaigns in the past, including one that showed grieving parents at the bedside of a man dying of Aids.
Other images in the latest campaign include Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel kissing French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a clinch with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benetton says it hopes the campaign will held contribute towards combating hatred and lead to the creation of a culture of tolerance.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Alessandro Benetton, deputy chairman of Benetton Group SpA and son of the founder of the family-controlled company, said: “It means not hating. 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.”
Benetton is planning a series of live events in which youngsters will post the controversial images on the walls of locations of cities around the world.