Italian clothing firm, Benetton, has withdrawn its latest ad campaign featuring an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed el-Tayyeb, imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and leading voice in Sunni Islam,. on the lips, due to the Vatican's irate protests.

The digitally photoshopped images of different world leaders in various liplock postures, especially of the Pope, didn't go down well with the Vatican, which finds the image offensive and calls it an unacceptable manipulation of the Pope's likeness, adding that it was outrageous that the religious sentiments of the faithful were being thus toyed with.

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, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement.

The shock ads also feature U.S. President Barack Obama kissing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Chinese President Hu Jintao flush on the lips in two different pictures. In other images, in the same campaign, various world leaders are shown kissing each other on the mouth including North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and Lee Myung-bak, president of South Korea; Palestian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Benetton says its Unhate campaign, with various pictures of political opponents kissing, aims at fostering tolerance and global love.

The Benetton ads are in keeping with the company’s tradition of using unorthodox marketing and socially conscious messages. “Our campaign promotes a shift in the balance: don’t hate, Unhate,” the company says on its Web site. Previously, Benetton has used an AIDS-afflicted man on his deathbed, a priest kissing a nun and a black woman breast-feeding a white baby.

Meanwhile, Benetton has apologized. “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,” the company said in a statement.

Check out the video here.