US State Department honors Italian nun as a 'Woman of Courage'

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Sister Maria Elena Berini receives the 2018 International Women of Courage award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., March 23, 2018. Credit: US Department of State/Public domain.

An Italian nun working in war-torn parts of Africa was honored at the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage award ceremony last week, commended for her dedicated service to the poor and to internally displaced persons.

“Sister Maria Elena is being honored for her service to counter hatred, injustice, and war-related horrors,” said Heather Nauert, department spokesperson, at the award ceremony held March 23 at the Dean Acheson Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

“She has provided refuge to those internally displaced people by conflict; and her tireless work to bring peace in the Central African Republic. Thank you, Sister,” Nauert continued.

Sister Maria Elena Berini, a Catholic nun from Italy who serves with the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne Anthide Thouret, was born in 1944. She developed a deep sense of compassion and service from a young age, when she left school at 15 to work in a textile factory to help support her family.

Berini entered novitiate at age 19 and began delving into religious and educational training. After voicing her desire to serve in Africa, she was sent to Chad in 1972 to teach in rural areas, often under the threat of violence and war.

Despite the horrors and injustices she witnessed first-hand, Berini came to love the African people and their culture. In 2007, she was transferred to a Catholic mission in Bocaranga, Central African Republic, where she has been working with internally displaced persons who are seeking refuge from conflict.

Berini, now 74, still works in CAR with those displaced by the war and remains hopeful for peace within the region.

“As the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, I am especially honored to be here today with Sister Maria Elena Berini,” said Callista Gingrich during the awards reception.

“Sister, your steadfast devotion to peace and justice, on behalf of the most vulnerable, is truly inspirational. Thank you for all that you do,” Gingrich continued.

Gingrich went on to commend all the women at the awards ceremony, and thanked them for their bravery, compassion, and “efforts to make our world a better place.”

Berini was one among ten honorees at the International Women of Courage ceremony, including Dr. Julissa Villanueva, a forensic pathologist from Honduras; Godelieve Mukasarasi who has been working for peace in Rwanda; Aliyah Khalaf Saleh, who saved a number of Iraqi military troops by hiding them from the Islamic State; and Aiman Umarova, who fights against sexual abuse of women and children in Kazakhstan.
 
The International Women of Courage award ceremony is now in its 12th year. It focuses on recognizing “women around the globe who have demonstrated exception courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

First Lady Melania Trump also addressed the group of honorees, saying that “their examples define courage,” and they have “shown incredible courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, quality, and women’s empowerment.”

“Courage sets apart those who believe in higher calling and those who act on it. It takes courage not only to see wrong, but strive to right it. Courage is what sets apart the heroes from the rest,” Trump said.

“The women of courage we honor here today are heroes.” 

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