• Italian clothing firm’s ad also featured Obama kissing Hugo Chavez and Angela Merkel kissing Nicolas Sarkozy

    Controversial: This mocked-up image of the Pope embracing Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb as part of Benetton’s new advertising campaign has been called ‘totally unacceptable’ by the Vatican

Benetton was forced to pull into a humiliating climbdown Thursday November 17th 2011 as the clothing company was forced to pull one of its images from its new ‘Unhate’ campaign.

The Italian firm withdrew the photograph featuring Pope Benedict XVI kissing a senior Egyptian imam on the lips after the Vatican denounced it as an unacceptable provocation.

Benetton had claimed its ‘Unhate’ campaign, which was launched Thursday November 17th 2011, was aimed at fostering tolerance and ‘global love’ but would have known how much trouble they were likely to stir up.

The campaign’s adverts include digitally altered pictures half a dozen world leaders to show them kissing.

Combating: hatred Benetton hope the controversial images will help create tolerance around the world. This picture shows China’s leader Hu Jintao and Barack Obama

President Barack Obama kisses Venezuela’s socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu locks lips with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il also enjoys a smooch with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy also take time out from dealing with the financial crisis engulfing Europe to give each other a smacker.

Edgy: Benetton’s Unhate Campaign includes this picture of U.S. President Barack Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez kissing

But it is the shot of His Holiness planting a kiss on Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb of Cairo’s al-Azhar institute, the pre-eminent theological school of Sunni Islam, which has raised the strongest objections.

It been on Benetton’s website all day but was pulled about an hour after the Vatican’s protest.

Enemies: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Lee Myung-bak, President of South Korea, are unlikely to be keen on this picture

Al-Azhar suspended interfaith talks with the Vatican earlier this year after Benedict called for greater protections for Egypt’s minority Christians.

A Benetton spokesman confirmed this afternoon that the Pope-imam ad was no longer part of the campaign.

Friendly: This image of Palestian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing will no doubt upset some people in the Middle East

Images were unfurled in Milan, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv and Rome, but a large banner of the image has been removed from a spot near the Vatican.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called the ad an ‘unacceptable’ manipulation of the pope’s likeness that offended the religious sentiments of the faithful.

‘It shows a serious lack of respect for the Pope,’ Lombardi said.

Mocked-up Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel in a clinch with French president Nicolas Sarkozy

Shock ads have long been a part of Benetton’s publicity strategy, with photographer Oliviero Toscani’s famous campaigns featuring death row inmates and people dying of AIDS.

Benetton said the photographs of political and religious leaders kissing were ‘symbolic images of reconciliation – with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation – to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation.’

In a statement, the Treviso-based manufacturer 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. We have decided with immediate effect to withdraw this image from every publication.’

Attention: People look at a Benetton clothing store window in Paris which is covered by posters as part of its new provocative campaign

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 African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy.’