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Spreading the Word in a War Zone

<bt>After the looting in Basra, Iraq, the only thing left of a local hospital was the sign outside the door. No medicine, no equipment and no bandages. Even the beds were gone. Iraqi doctors remained, although they weren't being paid their usual $10 to $15 monthly salary.

On July 12, Dr. Azmy Iskander and his wife, Amira, described these meager working conditions and the rest of their experiences in Iraq to fellow members of the Jubilee Christian Center. The Iskanders traveled to Iraq on May 19 with the 700 Club's "Operation: Blessing" medical team for a three-week tour of hospitals and churches in Basra. Both Azmy and Amira Iskander were born in Egypt, and their Arabic language skills helped the U.S. team communicate with Iraqi doctors, who were skeptical of Americans.

"At first they were kind of suspicious," said Azmy Iskander. "They didn't understand why people would leave their work and pay money to help Iraq. Eventually, they understood we didn't want anything from them."

Each day, Azmy Iskander went on medical rounds, treated patients and gave medical lectures to the Iraqi doctors, while his wife served as a translator.

Dinah Thompson, a doctor from Virginia Beach who was a part of the Operation: Blessing team, said of the Iskanders, "They were wonderful servants. They were helpful because they had worked with Muslims before, being from Egypt. Their experience helped us be culturally sensitive."

Although the Iskanders have been on mission trips throughout the world, their first footsteps beyond the Iraqi border foreshadowed the anarchy they would find in Basra during their stay.

"The minute you enter Iraq, you have to go through Checkpoint Abdaly," Azmy Iskander explained. "One hundred kids were going around the cars. Some of them would lie on the pavement in front of cars to get them to stop. Once the cars stop, the children throw rocks and loot the cars."

Azmy Iskander yelled at the children in Arabic, which dissuaded them from destroying the team's cars, but he was concerned about their safety.

"The temperature on the pavement gets up to 120 degrees," he said. They heard on the news later that a boy had been run over by a military vehicle.

AZMY ISKANDER also witnessed acts of hatred at the border between the two Arab nations of Iraq and Kuwait. Because clean water is scarce in Iraq, the Kuwaiti government decided to send trucks full of water to help the Iraqi people. But as soon as the Kuwaiti truck drivers crossed the border, they dumped the water on the ground. Iskander watched as a driver opened a faucet and poured the water into the sand.

"They are angry at the Iraqi people," he said. "We can be angry at Saddam Hussein, not the people."

Azmy Iskander maintains that he saw no victims of war during his trip. Instead, the injuries he treated were due to the chaotic situation in which the Iraqi people now exist. For example, he said that on May 28, a celebration in Basra ended in six fatalities and 100 injuries.

"The problem is that they injure themselves by being reckless," Azmy Iskander said.

Another problem is that each Iraqi household has at least six or seven guns. "There are two types of people: those who have the guns to protect themselves and those who have the guns to steal and loot. It was very hard to convince them not to use the guns," Azmy Iskander said.

The Iskanders found post-war Iraq to be a country with too many guns, no police and no authority. "They are in the Wild, Wild West," Azmy Iskander said. "Some say Saddam Hussein's rule was better, now that they don't have water, electricity or security. It seems to them that we are slow to get their lives back to normal. They didn't start pumping oil until recently, and there was looting of the pipelines of gas. Now it's day-by-day living. They are worried about their lives now. We were trying to bridge the gap between Saddam Hussein. We tried to convince them that everything would be fine."

LIKE MANY around the world, Azmy Iskander is conflicted about U.S. involvement in Iraq. He spoke at the Jubilee Christian Center of Saddam Hussein's brutality, from the 1 million killed in Hussein's war with Iran in 1980-88, to people who were put in jail, tortured or killed under his rule. During the service, Amira Iskander read a letter that they had received from an Iraqi doctor, thanking them for their service and for American intervention in Iraq.

On the other hand, Iskander's visit showed him that not all of Iraq's problems have been solved by the fall of Hussein. "I think we are doing them very good," he said of U.S. presence in Iraq. "They wanted to get rid of that guy. The problem now is day-to-day living, which they aren't seeing to be any better than before. People use that against us."

On June 8, the last day of their trip, the Iskanders saw what can happen when an entire country has no source of income and is only focused on surviving from one day to the next. As they left Basra, Amira and Azmy Iskander were surrounded by hundreds of people carrying hammers, pliers and screwdrivers. The people walked to the only bridge into the city, which carries water, food and medical supplies into Basra. There, the people dismantled the bridge and sold the pieces for scrap metal.

In spite of all these difficult situations, the Iskanders focused on sharing Christianity with the residents of Basra, a city which is 80-percent Shiite Muslim. Azmy Iskander said his goal was "to help in my field as much as possible, but the main thing was to reach them with the love of Christ. One of the nurses said to me, 'Dr. Iskander, you are a Christian, aren't you?' I said, ‘Yes, why?’ She answered, 'You definitely are different.’"

In addition to her duties as a translator, Amira Iskander served as a "prayer warrior," by praying for the medical team and the people of Iraq. Being from a predominantly Muslim country, the Iskanders were able to relate to the people in Basra.

"We are very sensitive to these people," Azmy Iskander said. "We only pray with patients if they ask us to."

The Iskanders have worked as a team throughout their 40 years of marriage. They first met in a Christian Church in Egypt. In 1971, they immigrated to the United States to escape persecution and to provide a better life for their three children. Azmy Iskander trained as an internist in a Rhode Island hospital, where he worked until 1980. Eventually he went into emergency medicine. From 1984 until his retirement two years ago, Iskander practiced medicine and went on mission trips twice a year.

One of the points of Azmy Iskander's presentation at the Jubilee Christian Center was that no one ever knows what the future may bring. The Iskander's son had recently graduated from Harvard when he died of a brain aneurysm in November 1999. He was just 28.

The Iskanders recognize that life is uncertain, no matter where one lives. With this uncertainty in mind, they plan to use their time to serve others. Azmy Iskander has already decided to return to Iraq with Paul Crouch, the president of Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian cable channel, which featured the Iskanders in an interview. Mary Lou Wolfkill, a member of the Iskander Evangelistic Association board and a friend of the Iskanders since 1981, said of Azmy Iskander, "We are so privileged to know him. He's experienced life the way some people have written about in books."