The Benetton clothing company has withdrawn an ad showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian imam on the lips after the Vatican denounced it as an "unacceptable" provocation.

Benetton had said its "Unhate" campaign launched Wednesday is aimed at fostering tolerance and "global love."

The campaign's fake photos show a half-dozen purported political nemeses in lip-locked embraces, including President Barack Obama and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The photo of the Pope had been on the company's website all day but was pulled about an hour after the Vatican's protest. A Benetton spokesman confirmed to The Associated Press that the Pope ad is no longer part of the campaign.

Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the ad was "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."

On the company's website, executive deputy chairman Alessandro Benetton is quoted as saying that global love is an ambitious but realistic goal.

"At this moment in history, so full of major upheavals and equally large hopes, we have decided, through this campaign, to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of 'the other’ and of what is unfamiliar to us," he said. 

With files from CBC News