By David Kerr
The Vatican will take legal action against Italian clothing company Benetton to prevent the circulation of an ad featuring Pope Benedict XVI kissing a Muslim imam.
The move on Nov. 17 comes a day after Benetton hastily withdrew the image from a new advertising campaign following protests from both religions.
“The Secretariat of State has authorized its lawyers to initiate actions, in Italy and elsewhere, to prevent the circulation, via the mass media and in other ways, of a photomontage used in a Benetton advertising campaign in which the Holy Father appears in a way considered to be harmful, not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibility of believers,” read the Vatican’s Nov. 17 statement.
The image was used as part of a new advertising campaign by Benetton titled “UNHATE” which was launched yesterday at a press conference in Paris. It was immediately followed by the unveiling of a new poster campaign at various locations around the globe.
The posters feature various religious and political leaders kissing each other on the mouth including a mock-up of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, the Imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.
A large banner bearing the image was unfurled from a bridge over the River Tiber in Rome. Within a few hours, however, the image had been withdrawn.
“We are so sorry that the use of the image of the Pope and the Imam has so offended the sensibilities of the faithful in this way,” said a spokesman for Benetton Nov. 16. “In confirmation of our feelings we have decided, with immediate effect, to withdraw this image from every publication.”
The Islamic religious authorities in Rome are also threatening to take legal action against Benetton for defamation.
“It is a serious lack of respect for the Pope, an affront to the feelings of the faithful and an evident demonstration of how, in the field of advertising, the most elemental rules of respect for others can be broken in order to attract attention by provocation,” said Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. Nov. 16.
Other posters include U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benetton is an Italian based fashion company with around 6000 stores in 120 countries. Their main clothing brand, the United Colors of Benetton, has become known in recent decades for the shock value of their publicity stunts.
In 1991, the company ran a poster campaign featuring a young priest in black cassock about to kiss a nun. Catholic groups subsequently failed in legal attempts to have the image removed from over 1300 billboard sites across the United States.
Other images used in recent years by Benetton have included a young man dying from AIDS, a bloodied newborn baby with uncut umbilical cord, a colorful mix of condoms, the blood stained uniform of a dead Bosnian soldier and pictures of inmates on death row.