Benetton clothing company has recently launched a new ad campaign, showing doctored photos of world leaders in conflict locking lips, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Italian clothing firm withdrew one of its ads on Wednesday, which used an image of Pope Benedict kissing an imam on the mouth, after the Vatican protested.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi called the unauthorized and "manipulative" use of the pope's picture in the photo montage totally unacceptable and suggested it might take legal action against the company.

"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," he said in a statement.

A large banner with the image of the pope and the imam was hung from a bridge near the Vatican on Wednesday morning but later removed.

Benetton said the purpose of its campaign was "exclusively to fight the culture of hate in every form" but said it had nonetheless decided to withdraw the image.

"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," it said in a statement.

Other photo montages in the same campaign, in which Benetton says it supports the Unhate Foundation, show other world leaders kissing each other on the mouth.

U.S. President Barack Obama is shown kissing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in one.

The Italian clothing company has run controversial advertising campaigns in the past, including one that showed grieving parents at the bedside of a man dying of AIDS.