The Vatican is taking legal action against Italian clothing company Benetton over the use of an advertising picture showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading imam as part of a new global campaign.

A statement by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Vatican has told its lawyers in Italy and around the world to "take the proper legal measures" to ban the use of the photo, even in the media.

Benetton had previously withdrawn the photo montage saying it was "sorry that the use of the image had so hurt the sensibilities of the faithful."

Benetton's poster, which was briefly hung from a bridge near Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo -- a stone's throw from the Vatican -- showed Pope Benedict XVI kissing on the lips Egypt's Ahmed el Tayyeb, imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and a leading voice in Sunni Islam.

The Vatican spokesman called the "manipulative" use of the pope's picture in the photo montage "totally unacceptable."

"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."

A spokesman for Egypt's al-Azhar Institute, whose grand imam was pictured kissing the pope, described the advertisement as "irresponsible and absurd."

The spokesman, Mahmud Azab, told the French news agency AFP that the ad was so absurd that the institution was "still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response."

Benetton on Wednesday launched a new global advertising campaign called "UNHATE" that included a series of photo montages of political and religious leaders kissing.

It defended the campaign, saying its purpose "was solely to battle the culture of hate in all its forms."

Apart from the Pope, the campaign features U.S. President Barack Obama kissing China's Hu Jintao and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; French President Nicolas Sarkozy embracing German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu kissing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-II kissing Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president.

A picture of Silvio Berlusconi kissing Merkel was pulled at the last minute after the Italian premier resigned last week.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the "Unhate" campaign is the cornerstone of a three-prolonged plan to relaunch Benetton's brand, product and retail network.

In the 1980s, world-renowned photographer Olivero Toscani created for Benetton the first of his multiracial campaigns with the "United Colors of Benetton" slogan. Later on, the Italian brand moved into controversial topics such as AIDS and Gulf War casualties, with the aid of Toscani.