Benetton said the photos of political and religious leaders making out, part of the company’s Unhate campaign, 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.”

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.

The current campaign features the modified images of President Obama locking lips with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez; Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu smooching Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas; French president Nicolas Sarkozy kissing German chancellor Angela Merkl; and Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian Imam.

The Vatican threatened legal action and said the image was “offensive not only to the dignity of the pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers.”

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

Benetton withdrew the ad immediately after its Wednesday debut once the Vatican denounced it as an unacceptable provocation.

Benetton had said its “unhate” campaign was aimed at fostering tolerance, but the Vatican’s daily newspaper called it “an insult to believers in the name of profit.”

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Eric Schultz slammed the images as well.

“The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes,” Schultz said.

Schultz declined to say if the White House would contact Benetton directly to express its objections.

The images have also been banned by The Sunday Times, International Herald Tribune and The Guardian.