Chapter 2: Bashir's Early Life


Antony Bashir was born on March 15, 1898, in Douma, Lebanon, the son of Joseph and Zaina Bashir. His family’s roots in the Orthodox Church extended back into the shadows of the distant past. He was raised in the mountain country of Greater Syria, where most of the Orthodox people owed their allegiance to the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. This holy see, with its triple apostolic foundation by Saints Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, and its 2,000 years of unbroken history, is recognized as one of the oldest in Christendom. It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.

Douma—a predominately Orthodox village that also contained a few Maronites and Muslims—was perched high in the mountains of Lebanon. The Bashir family was small. Bashir’s father was not considered a rich man; he supported his family by working as a gunsmith. The family gained other income by opening their home as the village guesthouse. Thanks to the variety of guests who stayed in their home, young Antony came into contact with people of all faiths.

 

Praying for her Children

The family name Bashir means “annunciation” or “good news,” but Zaina’s loss of three children in infancy seemed to mock the name. In due time, God blessed the couple with a son, Sabah, and a daughter, Adele. Zaina Bashir, driven to fill the void of her three lost children, made constant pilgrimages to the Orthodox shrines in Douma and the surrounding area, offering prayers and supplications and beseeching God for another child. She prayed most frequently at the church in the monastery of St Antony the Great near Douma. She vowed that, if God should give her another child, she would dedicate him to St Antony. A son was indeed born a year later, on March 15, 1898, and she named him Antony. His great uncle, Fr Elias Khoury, baptized him in the Church of the Theotokos in Douma.

His sister Adele described Antony as “an unusually intelligent and active boy, an old man when he was perhaps sixteen years old.” Antony’s mind and interests were extremely advanced for his age. He was a natural-born leader and always took the lead in childhood games.

 

Life under the Ottoman Turks

The Ottoman Turks had conquered Lebanon and made it a part of the Ottoman Empire. Christianity suffered greatly at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Due to extreme pressure by the Turks, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople systematically replaced indigenous patriarchs and bishops with fellow Greeks. Over the centuries, these Greek patriarchs lost touch with the indigenous Arabs of the Middle East. Arab Christianity suffered from neglect and a lack of leadership by the Greek bishops. In light of this situation, the Orthodox Church of Russia undertook to strengthen Orthodox Christianity inside the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Imperial Russian Orthodox Mission sponsored a school in Douma. This school, supported by Russian generosity, was the one that Antony Bashir attended.

 

In Search of an Education

When Antony was thirteen years old, he left home and enrolled at the Balamand Theological School near Tripoli, in Koura, Lebanon. Among his teachers was the Archimandrite Ananias Kassab (1888–1971). Little did he and his fellow classmate Samuel David suspect that one day they would both become archbishops, shaping the face of Orthodox Christianity in America. Bashir remained at the Balamand until his ordination to the diaconate on April 16, 1916.

A bright student seeking knowledge, Bashir went on to further his education at the American University of Beirut and the famous Law School of Baabda. He threw himself into his studies, learning the English language and the principles of economics. He filled his notebooks with meticulous notes, writing in English even when the subject was not English. In this way, even as he learned about the relationship between barter economies, money economies, and credit economies, for example, he was also strengthening his English language skills.

 

Choosing the Priesthood

Antony Bashir loved the Church as much as he loved learning. It is said that Antony’s love for the Church came from the influence of his maternal uncle, Elias Ayoub, who was a church chanter, as well as from the great dedication of his immediate family to the Church. The Bashir family was highly respected in the village not only because of their faith, but also for the devotion the parents exhibited toward their children and to each other. Antony’s parents permitted him to choose the vocation of the priesthood and, once he had made that decision, did not try to dissuade him from becoming a celibate.

By 1920, Antony Bashir had become known throughout the Arab world as a brilliant young clergyman. He had distinguished himself as secretary to the archbishop of Lebanon and as a teacher at both the American University of Beirut and at Beirut’s Zahrat-el-ehson High School. Furthermore, he practiced civil law under such great men as Najeeb Khalaf, Raji Abou Hyder, and Wakim Iz-el-deen. He also edited and contributed to leading publications such as The New Women(Al-Mara-Aljadida). This magazine, published by prominent Muslim Julia Tomeh, attempted to improve the position of women in the Muslim world.10Antony edited the magazine anonymously.

 

Give Me Men to Match my Mountains

It was the Church, however, that received the bulk of Antony’s energy and attention. Between the years 1915 and 1920, he collaborated with two leading scholars, Archbishop Paul Abou-Adul and Najeeb Khalaf, in compiling what has since earned universal recognition as the most accurate and complete Arabic version of the New Testament. The translation used texts of the Bible in the original Greek, in Russian, and in English, as well as the current Arabic edition. Unfortunately, this Arabic New Testament was never printed, although Khalaf’s widow kept the manuscript. In 1956, Metropolitan Antony tried to persuade Mrs Khalaf to give him the translation so that it might be published. However, she vowed to keep the manuscript as a treasured memory of her late husband.

Upon surveying the campus of the American University of Beirut, its founding president had once stated: “Let men come from their mountains ... to this mountain of learning.” Antony Bashir left the mountains surrounding Douma and came to the new mountain of learning in Beirut. In time he grew in stature and became indeed, in both the Old World and the New, a man to match the mountains.

 


Excerpt published (without footnotes) with permission from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. Order a copy of Antony Bashir: Metropolitan and Missionary, from the SVS Press website.