A paint-bomb attack on a controversial Christmas billboard will not stop the church from continuing its campaign, church leaders said yesterday.

A replacement has been ordered after the billboard was defaced about six hours after it was put up outside St Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland.

The image depicts the Virgin Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, in bed together.

A person was seen defacing the image just after 4pm yesterday, covering Mary's face, Joseph's face and the slogan that read: "Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow."

Church leaders at St Matthew's said the point of the image was to get people thinking about the Christmas story.

Yesterday St Matthew's communications manager, Clay Nelson, said the defaced billboard would stand for a day, as a testament to the single-minded view that some people had.

"They are driven to give threats and abuse - and [yet] they say 'we love Jesus and he loves us'. I'm sorry, but they don't get the irony of their behaviour.

"We will replace the billboard," he added. "We will not let this kindof behaviour be the last statement."

An outcry has followed the decision to erect the billboard, with many calling it offensive, inappropriate and disrespectful.

Mr Nelson said the church had spent yesterday answering hundreds of abusive emails and phone callsfrom around New Zealand and overseas.

The Herald itself has received dozens of emails from people upset about the image.

One message said: "This poster isn't just inappropriate. It is blasphemy."

Another angry reader said: "May the wrath of Almighty God strike down this abomination and bring those responsible to their knees in fear of Him."

Mr Nelson said that the church had obtained video footage of the defacer of the billboard and if the person could be identified, it would press charges.