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Benetton ad: Offended Vatican vows legal action

Benetton ad showing the pope kissing a Muslim leader so shocked the Vatican that Benetton pulled the ad. But the Vatican plans to sue, anyway.

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People walk past Benetton's "Unhate" campaign at a shop in Paris Thursday. The campaign features a half-dozen purported political nemeses in lip-locked embraces, including President Obama and China's Hu Jintao (left poster) and Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy. Benetton pulled the image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed Tayeb, leader of Al Azhar in Cairo. But the Vatican intends to take legal action.

Michel Euler/AP

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The Benetton clothing company is known for shock ads that have stirred controversy around the globe with images of death row inmates and people dying of AIDS.

Its latest campaign, unveiled Wednesday, so offended the Vatican that it is taking legal action to prevent the circulation of a doctored image depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Muslim imam.

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This after the company announced that it was withdrawing the image in response to a protest from the Vatican.

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In a statement Wednesday, the Benetton Group said the "UNHATE" campaign was designed to "combat hatred" and promote "closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other's motivations."

It features photo montages of world leaders locked in a kiss. President Obama is shown with China's Hu Jintao and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Benedict was shown with Ahmed Tayeb, leader of Al Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam's most influential institution. The Vatican called the image "offensive not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers."

In a statement Thursday, the Vatican said it was taking legal action in Italy and abroad to prevent its distribution, including "through the mass media."

Mahmud Azab, a spokesman for Al Azhar, told Agence France-Presse that the ad was "irresponsible" and so absurd that the institution was "still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response."

A large banner with the image was hung from a bridge near the Vatican on Wednesday morning but later removed, Reuters news agency reported. The company also pulled the image from its website.

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In a statement explaining Wednesday's action, the Treviso, Italy-based company said, "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."