World Leaders Smooch in Shocking Benetton Ad Campaign

Italian store Benetton on Wednesday launched a provocative publicity campaign with photo montages showing the pope kissing an imam on the lips and the U.S. president smooching his Chinese counterpart.

The shock pictures show Pope Benedict XVI in a passionate kiss with Egyptian Imam Ahmed el Tayyeb, Barack Obama kissing Hu Jintao and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smooching Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

However, later on Wednesday, Benetton said it was pulling the pope-imam ad.

The company said in a statement that 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."

The statement came shortly after the Vatican expressed "the firmest protest for this absolutely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father."

The posters, part of an advertising campaign entitled "UNHATE", have appeared in Benetton clothing stores across the globe as well as in newspapers, magazines and on Internet websites.

The passionate embrace between the pope and the imam was briefly shown on a banner held up near Sant'Angelo castle near the Vatican.

Benetton deputy chief Alessandro Benetton said in a statement that the ads were "constructive provocation" intended "to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance."

Benetton "chooses social issues and actively promotes humanitarian causes that could not otherwise have been communicated on a global scale," he said.

There was swift condemnation from Luca Borgomeo, head of the Association of Italian Catholic Television Viewers, who called for the ad to be removed.

"Is it possible Benetton could not come up with anything better?" he said.

The company, which became famous in the 1990s with a series of shocking ads, said it was also setting up a foundation to promote international tolerance.

"The central theme is the kiss, the most universal symbol of love, between world political and religious leaders," the company said.

One of the iconic Benetton ads -- photographed by Oliviero Toscani -- was of a young nun in white kissing a priest dressed in a black cassock, and others addressed important social issues such as AIDS and homosexuality.

Relations between the pope and the Al-Azhar imam, one of the leading voices in Sunni Islam, have been very tense particularly after Benedict expressed his solidarity with the victims of an attack on a church in Alexandria.

The statement was interpreted by El Tayyeb as interference and he did not send a delegation to an inter-religious meeting hosted by Benedict last month.

Source: Agence France Presse

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