The Vatican said on Thursday it was taking legal action to prevent the publication of a photo montage showing the pope kissing a leading imam as part of a Benetton advertising campaign.
The statement from the Vatican secretary of state came despite an announcement by the Italian clothing company that it was pulling the montage in the wake of severe criticism from the Holy See.
The Vatican said its State Secretariat would ask its lawyers "to take action in Itay and abroad to prevent the circulation in the mass-media and elsewhere of the photo montage produced as part of Benetton's publicity campaign."
It said Benetton's portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI "is wounding not only to the dignity of the pope but also to the sensibilities of the faithful".
Benetton's poster showed Benedict in a lip-lock with Egypt's Ahmed el Tayyeb, imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and a leading voice in Sunni Islam.
The image is part of a new global advertising campaign called 'Unhate' that contained a series of photo montages of political and religious leaders kissing.
Other shock pictures show US President Barack Obama kissing Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
One picture showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smooching Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. In another, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is depicted kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The posters appeared in Benetton clothing stores across the globe as well as in newspapers, magazines and on Internet websites.
The company defended the campaign, saying its purpose "was solely to battle the culture of hate in all its forms".
Within hours of the campaign launch on Wednesday, the Vatican issued a statement expressing "the firmest protest for this absolutely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father, manipulated and exploited in a publicity campaign with commercial ends".
"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," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
The passionate embrace between the pope and the imam was also briefly shown on Wednesday on a banner held up near Rome's landmark Castel Sant'Angelo castle not far from the Vatican.