Italian clothing brand Benetton has withdrawn a manipulated image of the pope kissing another man from its newly unveiled Unhate campaign after the Vatican protested.

The altered image depicted the Pope Benedict XVI locked in a clinch with Sheik Ahmed Muhammaed el-Tayeb, a leading Egyptian theologian and Imam of the 1000-year-old Al-Azhar Mosque.

The Vatican said: “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”.

The picture had been blown up and draped over a bridge in Rome.

Other pairings in the campaign include:

– President Barack Obama and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, whose picture was revealed in Milan
– Obama and Chinese Paramount Leader Hu Jintao
– Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
– North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak

Not all the pairings are between men; Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy also share a kiss in one of the manipulated images.

Deputy head of Benetton, Alessandro Benetton, agreed the images were designed to court publicity, but said it was publicity for “an ideal notion of tolerance.”

He said: “The central theme is the kiss, the most universal symbol of love, between world political and religious leaders”.

The Unhate Foundation has been “created to oppose and undermine hate culture, the Unhate Foundation will engage in the development of campaigns aimed at exorcising the ‘fear of the other'”.

Among other projects, the Foundation will create a 4 metre long dove made of recycled bullets that will be then donated to a country that has recently faced conflicts.