The Vatican said Thursday that it was taking legal action to prevent the publication of a photo montage showing the pope kissing a leading imam as part of a Benetton advertising campaign.
The White House slammed the campaign, which also showed US President Barack Obama kissing Chinese President Hu Jintao and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in photoshopped pictures.
The statement from the Vatican secretary of state came despite an announcement by the Italian clothing company that it was pulling the montage in the wake of severe criticism from the Holy See.
The Vatican said its State Secretariat would ask its lawyers "to take action in Italy and abroad to prevent the circulation in the mass-media and elsewhere of the photo montage produced as part of Benetton's publicity campaign."
It said Benetton's portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI "is wounding not only to the dignity of the pope but also to the sensibilities of the faithful".
Benetton's poster showed Benedict kissing on the lips Egypt's Ahmed el Tayyeb, grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and a leading voice in Sunni Islam.
Al-Azhar slammed the advert as "irresponsible and absurd" and said it was "still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response," Mahmud Azab, advisor to the grand imam, told AFP.
Azab said he wondered if this type of campaign was "in fact dangerous for universal values and freedom of expression as understood in Europe."
Benetton's campaign has touched a nerve in the Vatican at a tense time in relations between the world's two biggest religions, with the Roman Catholic Church protesting over the growing vulnerability of Christians in the Middle East.
Relations between the pope and the Al-Azhar imam have been very tense particularly after Benedict expressed his solidarity with the victims of an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria.
The statement was interpreted by Tayyeb as interference and he did not send a delegation to an inter-religious meeting hosted by Benedict last month.
Obama spokesman Eric Schultz told AFP that "the White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes."
The image is part of a new global advertising campaign called UNHATE that contained a series of photo montages of political and religious leaders kissing.
Other photo montages in Benetton's new global advertising campaign, called UNHATE, show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smooching Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and French President Nicolas Sarkozy kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The posters appeared in Benetton clothing stores across the globe as well as in newspapers, magazines and on Internet websites.
The company defended the campaign, saying its purpose "was solely to battle the culture of hate in all its forms".
Within hours of the campaign launch on Wednesday, the Vatican issued a statement expressing "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".
"This shows a grave lack of respect for the pope, an offence to the feelings of believers, a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people by attracting attention with provocation," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
The passionate embrace between the pope and the imam was also briefly shown on Wednesday on a banner held up near Rome's landmark Castel Sant'Angelo castle not far from the Vatican.