Madonna's application to adopt Chifundo "Mercy" James, 3, was turned down by a Malawi judge Friday morning in court, has confirmed.

The judge cited requirements that adoptive parents reside in the country for 18 to 24 months.

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Madonna, 50, can appeal against the order. She adopted David Banda, 3, in 2006 without meeting the residency requirements, which caused outrage by non-governmental groups that felt she was using her celebrity status to bend the law.

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Judge Esme Chombo had been expected to sign off on the adoption at Lilongwe High Court.

"We support her adoption process," Information Minister Patricia Kaliati said yesterday. "Madonna's been good to us. She's supporting over 25,000 orphans in this country, and she's proved she can take care of David."

Mercy's uncles, Peter Baneti and John Ngalande, signed off on the papers Monday. They were also present at Madonna's pre-adoption party at the luxe Kumbali Lodge Thursday night.

"Mercy is now assured of a good education away from the abject poverty of our village," Baneti told Us yesterday. "Madonna has assured us she will not cut her ties with us."

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Madonna's lawyer Alan Chinula told Us Wednesday: "I am not sleeping sleepless nights over this. I don't see any law in Malawi that can stop this adoption."

Chinula told Us the residency restriction law is over 50 years old and "archaic."