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Christian Doctors Run Hospital for Muslim Patients in Egypt

Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt often make headlines, but the work of a group of Christian doctors paints a more upbeat picture of religious coexistence. The doctors run a hospital for mostly Muslim patients in Egypt's heartland - the Egyptian Delta town of Menhouf.

The afternoon call to prayer sounds in the predominantly Muslim Egyptian Delta town of Menhouf as doctors examine patients at the Harpur Memorial Hospital run by the Anglican diocese of North Africa.

Unlike most hospitals in Egypt, Harpur receives no money from the government and its mostly Christian staff of doctors donate their time to care for the hospital's primarily Muslim clientele.

It is a labor of love, says Dr. Samir Bakheet, a 62-year old gynecologist from Cairo, who runs the hospital:

He says most of his doctors are Christian, and that patients from across the region come because they trust the doctors and respect them. Our doctors, he says, have a strong faith and strong sense of purpose, which is to serve the sick. We are not here to make a profit, he insists.

The head nurse, Madame Hana'a, turns to a gruff looking old patient whom she calls Uncle Mahmoud, and asks how he is doing:

What brought you here, Uncle Mahmoud, she asks. His intestines have been bothering him, he says, and his whole body is weak. But, he adds, the doctors have done a good job of fixing me up.

Dr. Bakheet says 50,000 patients are treated at the hospital every year and a quarter of a million go through the doors, if their families are included. He says 90 to 95 percent of the patients are Muslim.

Anesthesiologist Dr. Michel Awad, who gave up a lucrative job in Cairo to come to Menhouf, says the work is rewarding and the hospital's founder, an Irish doctor named Frank Harpur, set an example for others to follow:

"Dr. Frank Harpur is an Irish doctor who came at the beginning of the 1890s. He used to go with a houseboat down the branches of the Nile to the Delta area," said Dr. Awad. "He used to get offshore and to see the patients, and then go back to Cairo."

Dr. Harpur was so successful, notes Michel Awad, that he is still remembered for eradicating a parasite which was plaguing the countryside:

"At the beginning, there were many farmers who suffered from parasites, notably one parasite called enclostoma, feeding on the blood of the farmers, so they were getting weak and unable to do much work," he said. "Dr. Harpur and his team brought the treatment for this parasite and they treated many patients, so by and by word spread in the country and the government adopted the same treatment."

Douglas Penman, a third-year medical student from Sheffield, England is working for a short period at the hospital and says what the doctors accomplish is impressive:

"The commitment to serve the Muslim population in Menhouf is quite impressive," he said. "They charge a lot less than the government hospitals and they work at a better standard. The sheer volume of people that they manage to get through, is quite impressive."

Children are a large part of the work at Harpur Hospital, and some are too shy to talk, but the doctors coax them, softly.

"What is your name?" asks Dr. Samir. "It is Malek Abdel Ghaffar", the young patient replies timidly. She says her eyes are bothering her and her mother says they are swollen.

Anglican Bishop Mouneer Anis, who oversees Harpur Hospital, says its work is especially meaningful to him, since he is also a medical doctor:

"The medical program is very near to my heart, because I myself am a medical doctor. I graduated in Cairo University medical school in 1974 and I worked in a hospital for 21 years before I became a bishop," he said.

He says the medical program is a way for him and other doctors to apply the Christian teaching of compassion for others:

"Jesus, when he came to our earth, he went around doing good for all people, regardless of their religion, their gender, their economic status, and sometimes the church itself cannot do this," he said.

The Bishop compares his team's medical work to that of a Good Samaritan, who goes where organizations like churches cannot go.