A Vatican cleric is defending a Brazilian archbishop's decision to excommunicate several doctors who performed an abortion last week on a nine-year-old girl who became pregnant with twins after alleged sexual abuse by her step-father.

"It is a sad case, but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated,'' Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told the Italian daily La Stampa.

"Life must always be protected. The attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified," Re was quoted as saying. He also heads the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

The controversy erupted when media reported that a nine-year-old girl from the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco had had an abortion to remove twin fetuses. The girl and her family learned she was 15 weeks pregnant when she went to hospital complaining of pains.

The girl, who has not been identified, told authorities her step-father had sexually abused her since age six. The 23-year-old step-father is currently in police custody.

Doctors performed the abortion Wednesday, saying they feared the pregnancy could kill her because of her slim frame.

Upon learning of the abortion, the regional archbishop excommunicated the doctors, as well as the girl's mother. He did not excommunicate the step-father, saying the crime he is alleged to have committed, although deplorable, was not as bad as ending a fetus's life.

"The law of God is higher than any human laws," Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho said in an interview on Globo television. "When a human law is against the law of God, that law has no value."

Abortion is illegal in Brazil, which has more Catholics than any other country. However, it can be carried out before the 20th week of pregnancy if the mother's life is deemed in danger or if the baby was conceived through rape.

The controversy has continued up the government and religious hierarchy, with Brazil's president and his ministers coming out in support of the girl.

On Friday, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva denounced the church's strict interpretation of the law.

"The doctors did what had to be done: save the life of a girl of nine years old," Lula told news outlets.

That, in turn, brought out counter-condemnations from the Vatican.

"Excommunication for those who carried out the abortion is just," Cardinal Re said.

With files from the Associated Press