VATICAN CITY — God’s love may be free, but the Vatican says it has a copyright on the pope.

Unnerved by the proliferation of papal-themed T-shirts, snow globes and tea towels around the world, the Vatican warned it intends to “protect” the image of Pope Francis and “stop situations of illegality that may be discovered.” It also wants to protect the crossed keys emblem of the Holy See.

“The secretary of state will undertake systematic surveillance aimed at monitoring the way in which the image of the Holy Father and the emblems of the Holy See are used, intervening with opportune measures when necessary,” the Vatican said in a statement.

To back up this declaration, the Vatican hired the global law firm Baker McKenzie to protect its intellectual property rights, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported. The threat of enforcement marks a sea change for a church that for some 2,000 years has seen popes venerated on all manner of flags, banners and medals. But the popularity of Francis and the ease with which his image can be copied in the internet age has spawned a flood of papal trinkets, causing the Holy See to worry that they are losing control of his image.

“The pope’s image rights are no different from those of any other famous celebrity and so it’s not surprising that the Vatican is giving notice that it will protect its (intellectual property) rights as necessary,” said Nick Kounoupias, the founder of an intellectual property consultancy in London. “What will be interesting to see, however, is how vigorously these rights are pursued, given who the IP owner is.”

Francis’ many travels have taken him to countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka, where factories can quickly churn out pope hats, T-shirts and towels. Vatican officials have grown fearful the faithful will think that the church is making money off the merchandise, experts say. Worse still, they see the conditions in which some of the items are made and worry about being associated with labor abuses.

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