In her home country of Morocco, Aicha Ech Channa has been condemned for her work. But Wednesday in Minneapolis, she received praise and the $1 million Opus Prize.

A former social worker, Ech Channa is the founder of an organization that helps unwed mothers, an effort that Islamic extremists decry.

She is the first Muslim to win the Opus award. The annual humanitarian award from the Minnetonka-based Opus Prize Foundation goes to unsung heroes for their faith-based acts of compassion.

The awards are given in conjunction with a college or university that agrees to integrate the prize into its curriculum as an educational and inspirational tool. This year it was the University of St. Thomas.

Although it is given in partnership with Catholic schools, the award is open to all faiths.

Ech Channa, 68, is the founder and president of the Association for Women's Solidarity. In the 1980s, she was working for the Moroccan Ministry of Social Affairs, where unwed mothers came seeking help, even though little help was available. Under Islamic law, the women were considered prostitutes, and many had their babies taken away over their objections.

Considering that unacceptable, Ech Channa launched her program in 1985. It offers women legal counseling, job training and medical and psychological support with a goal of making them self-sufficient so they can raise their children.

"I don't get involved in politics," she said through an interpreter, "but I do work very hard to get my point of view across."

Despite criticism from Muslim clerics, she is committed to her faith, which she approaches from a humanist standpoint.

"Humanism is about individuals and the love they have for one another," she said. "Every human being has a flame [of love] inside them that must be fanned."

That spirit led the Opus foundation to her. People don't apply for the award; the organization uses anonymous investigators to identify potential nominees. Ech Channa learned she was nominated when she got a phone call telling her she was one of three finalists (out of 23 nominees).

"They told me the prize was $1 million," she said. "I told them, 'Wait a minute. I need to write down all the zeros.' So I did. And then I looked at it and said, 'That's a lot of zeros.'"

The money will go toward ensuring that her association's work continues after she's out of the picture. That need struck home two years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer. She's healthy now, thanks in part, she said, to a deal she made the day she learned of the disease.

"I negotiated with God," she said. "I told him that if he let me live, I would devote three-fourths of my time to making sure that people would finish my work. ... We have opened a small door, but now we need to change the way people think. That will take time."

But she saw progress on a recent visit to a small village. A girl approached and identified herself as one of the children the program had helped.

"She had just passed her high-school exams," Ech Channa said. "She wants to become a lawyer. She is our future."

Two runner-up awards, each for $100,000, went to the Rev. Hans Stapel, a Roman Catholic priest in Brazil who launched a drug-treatment program, and Sister Valeriana García-Martín, who oversees eight homes in Colombia that house 140 children who have been abandoned because of physical and mental disabilities.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392