An Italian fashion brand, which in the past has run successful advertising campaigns using photographs of a priest and a nun kissing, is causing controversy once again.

The United Colors of Benetton revealed digitally manipulated images of world leaders kissing as part of the company’s new Unhate campaign. The shocking new campaign features the modified images of U.S. President Barack Obama locking lips with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu smooching Palestinian National Authority, president Mahmoud Abbas as well as others.

"We want to reaffirm the value of the brand. We are going back to the tradition of [Benetton] and will make the most of this. But we are reconciling the past with the future. At this time, when something bad is happening in the world, we want to focus people's eyes on the positives. This campaign is about reconciliation and acceptance,” the head of the company and son of the founder, Alessandro Benetton, told The Independent newspaper.

Benetton created the Unhate Foundation as a way to contribute to the creation of a new culture of tolerance, to combat hatred and build on Benetton’s underpinning values, according to the Unhate Foundation’s website. Besides making world leaders make out, the foundation also has set up a "kiss wall" on Facebook that lets people upload their own kiss photos.

While some people are taking the campaign as a good joke, the Vatican and some newspapers are not so forgiving. The images have already been banned by The Sunday Times, International Herald Tribune and The Guardian.

On Wednesday Benetton pulled the ad of Pope Benedict XVI smacking lips with Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed El-Tayeb, imam of the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, called the ad an "unacceptable" manipulation of the pope's likeness that offended the religious sentiments of the faithful.

"It shows a serious lack of respect for the pope," the Vatican spokesman said.

It wasn't clear if the ads had  been  published anywhere; on Wednesday images from  the campaign were unfurled briefly in Milan, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv and Rome but were quickly taken away.

Shock ads have long been a part of Benetton's publicity strategy, with photographer Oliviero Toscani's famous campaigns featuring death row inmates and people dying of AIDS.

Benetton said the photos of political and religious leaders kissing were "symbolic images of reconciliation — with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation — to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation."

In a statement, the Treviso, Italy-based clothing manufacturer said it was sorry that its image had offended the faithful and that as a result "we have decided with immediate effect to withdraw this image from every publication."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press. 

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