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Showing posts with label persecution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label persecution. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mark Feb 24 as a Key Date in the Battle for Religious Freedom


Today is a significant date in Christian history, for it was on February 24, 303 AD that the edict was issued by Roman Emperor Diocletian that began the first empire-wide and most bloody persecution of Christians. Prior to 303, Christians had been persecuted in various provinces of the Roman Empire, but this was different. It was systemic and all-encompassing.

The Diocletian Persecution is important partially because of how it began. Historian W.H.C. Frend explains the crafting of the laws that launched the persecution:
The persecution resembled Valerian's more than Decius's. It had been carefully planned and the consequences had been weighed. Diocletian recognized the danger of making Christians martyrs. No blood, he insisted, must be shed. The aim was to recall the Christians to their duty of recognizing the majesty of the Roman Gods. The edict he promulgated on 24 February ordered throughout the empire churches were to be destroyed, and the sacred books of the Christians handed over to be burned. Christians in public offices were to be removed from them. In private life Christians in the upper classes (honestiores) were to lose their privileges. In particular, they could not act as plaintiffs in cases of injury, adultery, or theft. Christian slaves might not be freed. But there was no requirement for universal sacrifice. The attack was concentrated on the organization of the church, its life as represented by the Scriptures and buildings, and on its influential members. (Emphasis added.)1
Notice the thought process by Emperor Diocletian who had to initially be convinced to issue the edict. We're not going to force people to worship Roman Gods. It's simply the duty of those who enjoy the benefits of Rome's governance to recognize there is a social standard to which they must adhere. Thus, Christians should be removed from public offices since their Christian beliefs run counter to the beliefs the state wishes to promote. Wealthy Christian businessmen should lose any protections they hold, especially those that would protect them legally. The church as an organization should be attacked as a wrong-thinking institution. But no blood should be shed and Christians can believe what they will in the privacy of their own homes.

The Loss of Freedom Today

Of course, we are not in Diocletian's Rome. Frend spends several pages discussing why conditions in the Empire at that time made the persecution more likely than before. Those conditions do not exist today and I'm not arguing that we are heading for another Diocletian Persecution. However, the trend to weaken religious freedom is increasing, and many of the justifications used sound eerily familiar. If you're a Christian court clerk in Kentucky who refuses to sign a marriage certificate, people demand you be removed from public office. If you are a baker or wedding photographer, your beliefs and your conscience are secondary to what the state feels is moral. Here's how the Harvard Law Review summarized the judgment against one such photographer:
Justice Bosson concluded that "[i]n the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. . . . [I]t is the price of citizenship."2
The freedom of religion is often referred to as the "First Freedom." In the United States, it is the first freedom to be recognized in the Constitution's Bill of Rights, but it is the first freedom in more ways than that. Without the freedom to not simply "do whatever we want in the privacy of our homes," but to incorporate our beliefs into our broader lives, we are not truly worshiping freely. It is the state that is setting the rubric of what counts as true beliefs verses what counts as inconsequential beliefs. How much can you belief something if it never affects the way in which you live? The short answer is: you can't. By dictating which beliefs must be sacrificed for the price of citizenship is effectively setting a state religious litmus test.

Escalating from Legislation to Volience

The second reason why we should remember the Diocletian persecution is how quickly it elevated from a calculated, no-blood political move to an all-out blood bath against Christians. The Christian History Institute sums it up nicely:
Before the end of the year, Diocletian issued two more proclamations against Christians and Maximian issued a fourth the following year. One ordered the imprisonment of Christian teachers, filling the prisons with bishops and clergy. The next ordered that these prisoners either sacrifice to the pagan gods or be tortured. The third directed that all Christians should be required to sacrifice on pain of torture.

Christians suffered terribly, especially in the eastern empire. Some were thrown to wild beasts, others burned alive or roasted on griddles. Some were skinned or had their flesh scraped from their bones. Others were crucified. A few were tied between trees that were bent so as to meet and, when the branches were released, the force ripped these victims limb from limb. Eventually the Romans wearied of this and set the remaining Christians to work in mines or gave them menial jobs. In many instances, they gouged out an eye or maimed a hand or foot before sending the workers off. From this period come many notable martyrs, including the young girl, Agnes of Rome.3
While the powers that be began in limiting their scope of the edicts, it quickly grew out of control. The tortures were fierce and had gone beyond what the designers had imagined. Even those Christians who had adopted Roman customs were not immune. Frend writes, "For some, the Persecution must have come as a great shock. Even in towns where they were most numerous, we find Christians sharing fully in the Greco-Roman culture, taking part in city life as councilors, and not adverse to references to Hades and the Muses on their tombstones."4 To have assumed those who just "go with the program" or one who agrees with the state and capitulate to its edicts means they will not be targeted was mistaken. Just the name "Christian" was enough to condemn one to death or to slave labor.

AS we mark the anniversary of the Diocletian Persecution, we should consider these things and think about what we risk in our own society. People are people and they tend to repeat themselves. What lessons should we learn before we allow our religious freedom to be adjudicated into something less than an irrevocable right held by all mankind?

References

1. Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984. Print. 457.
2. "Constitutional Law — First Amendment — New Mexico Supreme Court Holds That Application Of Public Accommodations Law To Wedding Photography Company Does Not Violate First Amendment Speech Protections. Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, 309 P.3d 53 (N.M. 2013)." Harvard Law Review 127.5 (2014): 1485. Web.
[. "Start of Diocletian's Great Persecution | It Happened Today." Christian History Institute. Christian History Institute, 24 Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/it-happened-today/2/24/
4. Frend, 1984. 445.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christian Bakers Forced to Pay Fines; Here's What We Can Learn



This morning, the lawyer representing Sweet Cakes by Melissa reported that the couple was paying the fine of over $135,000 levied against them by Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries for not baking a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian doled out the heavy-handed fine, claiming the bakers were being immoral in their stance, inflicting emotional and mental suffering and violating the women's civil rights by discriminating on the basis of their sexual orientation.1 Avakian had prompted the payment by seizing every penny the bakers had in their bank accounts.2

It seems we live in a topsy-turvy world where wrong is called right and right is called wrong. But this shouldn't be a surprise to Christians. I understand that people have a tendency to think of the problems they currently face as new or unique. While for some things this may be true (substituting screen time for real relationships doesn't seem to be a problem of past generations), human beings are a remarkably consistent lot and the early believers faced many of the same trials we do today.

Athenagoras gives us one example. In the second century AD, Christians were being persecuted in various cities across the Roman Empire on trumped up charges. Different city official and citizens objected to Christians not bowing to their gods, which basically meant rejecting whatever morality they themselves deemed appropriate. The officials would put the Christians on trial under false accusations, such as being immoral or being atheists, condemn them in a kangaroo court, and use it as justification to persecute them and seize their belongings.

Charges of immorality are as old as Christianity

The injustice of this all disturbed Christian philosopher Athenagoras so much that in AD 177 he wrote a letter to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Emperor of Rome himself and argued the case for the Christians. One of the charges brought against Christians was they were engaging in immoral sexual acts. Athenagoras writes, "they have further also made up stories against us of impious feasts and forbidden intercourse between the sexes, both that they may appear to themselves to have rational grounds of hatred, and because they think either by fear to lead us away from our way of life, or to render the rulers harsh and inexorable by the magnitude of the charges they bring."3

Athenagoras goes on to argue that Christians are not immoral at all; they are actually more moral than even the belief systems of their accusers, pointing out how gods the officials worship, such as Zeus, were adulterers and incestuous. He writes that Christians held to a high view of the sanctity of marriage. He then goes on to compare Christians and their accusers. Notice how modern the charges in this paragraph sound:
But though such is our character (Oh! Why should I speak of things unfit to be uttered?), the things said of us are an example of the proverb, "The harlot reproves the chaste." For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure—who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonouring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God)—these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods. These adulterers and pederasts defame [people choosing to remain unmarried for life] and the once-married (while they themselves live like fishes; for these gulp down whatever falls in their way, and the stronger chases the weaker…), but it is incumbent on us to be good and patient of evil.

Two Lessons from Athenagoras

While the persecution of Christian bakers is not nearly as severe as what second century Christians faced, I think there are lessons to be gleaned from the parallels between this event and what Christians faced in Athenagoras' day. First, charges against Christians on grounds of morality won't go away. Christian values are not those of the world and no one should be surprised when those who are in charge come against Christians and successfully use the law as a hammer against them. Jesus himself warned us of this when he said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18-19. ESV).

Secondly, we must make certain as Christians that we consistently live up to our own moral standards. Athenagoras' argument is anchored on the fact that Christians really did value marriage. They held it in the highest regard and shunned things like divorce and adultery. He states Christians are opposed to immorality for entertainment, such as was common in the gladiatorial events.

How seriously do Christians take their entertainment choices? Do you hold your marriage in the highest of regards, seeing it as inviolable until death? Does your life help make the case against persecution or is it undercutting the contrast? We must live as Christ has told us to live, for we will certainly suffer if we bear his name.

References

1. Rede, George. "Sweet Cakes Owners Pay Damages While Continuing Appeal of $135,000 Bias Case." OregonLive.com. Oregon Live LLC., 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015. http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2015/12/sweet_cakes_owners_pay_damages.html.
2. Starnes, Todd. "Costly Beliefs: State Squeezes Last Penny from Bakers Who Defied Lesbian-wedding Cake Order." Fox News. FOX News Network, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015. http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/12/29/bakers-forced-to-pay-more-than-135g-in-lesbian-cake-battle.html.
3. Athenagoras. "A Plea for the Christians." Chapter 31. Translated by B.P. Pratten. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Web. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0205.htm.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Atrocity Against Christians in Iraq

There are only two books in the Bible that end in a question. The first is the book of Jonah, which tells the story of God going to remarkable lengths to share the message of redemption with a seemingly irredeemable people. Because the prophet Jonah was Jewish, he rebels against God's command to preach repentance to the Ninevites who were ruthlessly cruel and would inflict that cruelty upon the Northern Kingdom of Israel some years later. Jonah wants to see the Assyrian capital judged by the Almighty. However, God knew that if the right person delivered His message those people would be saved.

Today, the city that occupies Nineveh's location is named Mosul. Mosul is famous for its long history of Christianity, which goes back to within a 100 years of Jesus' death1. Both the Catholic and the Orthodox faiths have early roots there and the city was the capital of Nestorianism since the sixth century. Christians are a significant part of the historic fabric of the city.

But all that has changed. With the recent takeover of the city by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant Jihadist group, Christians have been targeted. ISIS has purged the city of Christians, forcing them to either convert to Islam, agree to second-class status, or die. ISIS terrorists, echoing the Gestapo's branding of Jewish houses with a Star of David, were marking every door identified as Christian with the Arabic letter N for followers of the Nazarene, Jesus. Ironically, Nazareth is also the area where the prophet Jonah was from.

The UK Telegraph passed along a report from the local news agency that "ISIS troops entered the house of a poor Christian and, when they didn't get what they wanted, the soldiers raped the mother and daughter in front of their husband and father." 2 The New York Times reports that "at least 1,531 civilians were killed in June alone" in Mosul and the city's Christian population has gone from 30,000 in 2003 to zero.3 While major media outlets continue to splash headlines decrying the nearly 500 dead in Gaza, the fate of Christians in Mosul gets no such preference. This when the crisis is a direct result of US troop toppling the Iraqi government then abandoning the country.4

As I said, Jonah is one of only two books of the Bible ending in a question. It records the redemption of a people. The other is the book of Nahum, which records the utter destruction that was heaped upon Nineveh as judgment came. Today, Christians are faced with a question. Will we as the body of Christ be reluctant to intervene or will we extend ourselves to minister to those who are suffering because of His name?

What Christians Can Do

The horror ISIS is inflicting on our brothers and sisters in Christ is staggering and the church needs to act. The Apostle Paul instructs us "as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal 6:10). Here then are three things we can do to help Christians fleeing Mosul:

1. Support the Christian Refugees

Christians can support those fleeing their homes in Mosul. We first support our brothers and sisters by praying fervently for them. Pray daily. Pray before each meal as you thank God for your blessings that He would offer compassion and shelter to the refugees as well. But you can support the refugees in more concrete ways as well. Currently I've found two Christian organizations that are providing relief efforts to the displaced Christians from Iraq. You may donate to either  International Christian Concern or the Barnabas Fund. Both are registered with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

2. Write Your Congressional Representative

We need to speak up for those people who are being murdered and displaced from their homes. I recommend you write to your federal congressional representative and let them know that you have serious concerns about the suffering in Mosul. Be respectful and keep your letter short and on point. I have created a sample letter here. For US citizens, if you don't know who your representative is, you may find out here.

3. Talk about it

Let's raise the awareness of this atrocity to the level of national discourse. Post about the plight of Iraqi Christians. Update your status on social media platforms and share links. Encourage others to do the same. If you're a pastor, talk about this from the pulpit. The more attention we draw to those afflicted by evil, the more other people will join with us to help.

References

1. See Rassam, Suha. Christianity in Iraq: Its Origins and Development to the Present Day.(Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing, 2005). 24-26.    
2. Stanley, Tim. "Iraqi Christians are raped, murdered and driven from their homes — and the West is silent." The Telegraph. 21 July 2014. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100280803/iraqi-christians-are-raped-murdered-and-driven-from-their-homes-and-the-west-is-silent/
3. Rubin, Alissa J. "ISIS Forces Last Iraqi Christians to Flee Mosul." The New York Times, 18 July 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/world/middleeast/isis-forces-last-iraqi-christians-to-flee-mosul.html?_r=0
4. Stanley, Ibid.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Christianity is the Most Persecuted Faith in the World

Image courtesy smallbones.
It may surprise you that chimpanzees are on the endangered species list. From a population of more than 2 million a century ago, current estimates are that there are no more than 250,000 chimpanzees in the wild.1  Such a reduction in numbers cause many people to rally on behalf of the animals, with various opportunities to pay thousands of dollars to help stop the shrinking populations.

Trying to protect chimps from extinction is not an unworthy cause. However, there is another group that has seen a similar loss in numbers in the last twenty years. In 1990, there were between 1.2 million to 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq. Today there are less than 200,000, according to Dr. Rupert Shortt. In his recent article Christianophobia, Shortt make the startling claim that "Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers" in the world today, and thus Christianity has surpassed Judaism as the most persecuted faith. He says that in the Middle East Christianity is so persecuted that it could become extinct in the place of its birth. "There is now a serious risk that Christianity will disappear from its biblical heartlands. Anthony O'Mahony of Heythrop College, London, echoes other scholars in estimating that between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the region have left or been killed over the past century."2

In her article on the report, Evelyn Gordon observes:
There are two reasons why Christianity has displaced Judaism as the world's most persecuted religion. One, obviously, is increased persecution of Christians, which stems largely from the rise of radical Islam: Though non-Islamic countries like China also repress Christians, only radical Islamists kill them wholesale. The other is that today, Jews face less persecution than ever before in history. And that is entirely due to the existence of the State of Israel.3
It is evident that Islam is a primary reason for the growing persecution of Christians specifically. Shortt's report offers a detailed look at seven nations (Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Burma, and China) to bolster his argument of the persecution Christians face. He concludes by noting that religious freedoms are commonly found in countries that are traditionally Christian, while the countries with the most persecutions are those that are either traditionally Islam or those with Communist governments.

Quoting from the Pew Forum and the World Evangelical Alliance, Dr. Shortt estimates that "200 million Christians (10 per cent of the global total) are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs."4 He also highlights the fact that religious freedom is important, because it serves as a barometer for the general amount of freedom a country offers its citizens. "Religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally."5

So, with Christians in Nigeria being bombed inside their churches, the killing of Christian converts in Pakistan, or Copts being burned alive in Egypt, there is a crisis in the world due to religious persecution. So, how valuable are these Christians who face life-threatening conditions? Are we willing to do as much for them as for the chimpanzees? Should there not be an outcry from citizens of free nations so that western governments demand such atrocities stop? If the canary in the mine dies, you know that it will be only a matter of time before you will, too.  Perhaps we had better take these warnings seriously.


References

1. "Chimpanzee". Primate Info Net. < http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/chimpanzee/cons>  Accessed 2/27/2013.
2. Shortt, Rupert. Christianophobia. (London: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 2012). Available online at http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/Shortt_Christianophobia.pdf  viii.
3. Gordon, Evelyn. "Religious Persecution and Safe Havens." Commentary. , http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2013/02/26/religious-persecution-and-safe-havens/ 2/26/2013.
4. Shortt.Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Christian Martyrdom and Tertullian

Several news sources are reporting on the increased persecution of Christian house churches in China. When China fell to the communists in 1949, the atheistic government discouraged any practice of religion and missionaries were basically removed from the country. For the next thirty years, Christians in the West were left to assume that the church had been stamped out by the state. However, once relations softened between the Chinese government and the West, we were surprised to see a populous and thriving house church movement that seemed to increase under persecution.


This reminded me of the quote by Tertullian in his Apology for the Christians and it makes me ponder two thoughts. While martyrdom has been "the seed of the church," Tertullian also said that Christians don't hope for it for its own sake, but that the truth of Christ may claim ultimate victory. So we should pray and do what we can for all those persecuted for the name of Jesus across the globe. Secondly, with the western church so soft, I wonder how we would embrace such a calling as martyrdom. Would we see it the way Tertullain and those in his day did? If not, then what do we love more, Christ or our comfort?

WHAT reason then, say you, have we Christians to complain of our sufferings, when we are so fond of persecution; we ought rather to love those who persecute us so sweetly to our heart's content. It is true, indeed, we are not against suffering, when the Captain of our salvation calls us forth to suffer: but let me tell you, it is with us in our Christian warfare as it is with you in yours, we choose to suffer as you choose to fight; but no man chooses fighting for fighting sake, because he cannot engage without fear and hazard of life. Yet, nevertheless, when the brave soldier finds he must engage, he battles it with all his power, and if he comes off victorious is full of joy, though just before not without his complaints of a military life, because he has obtained his end, laden with glory, laden with spoil.

...

And now, O worshipful judges, go on with your show of justice, and, believe me, you will be juster and juster still in the opinion of the people, the oftener you make them a sacrifice of Christians. Crucify, torture, condemn, grind us all to powder if you can; your injustice is an illustrious proof of our innocence, and for the proof of this it is that God permits us to suffer; and by your late condemnation of a Christian woman to the lust of a pander, rather than the rage of a lion, you notoriously confess that such a pollution is more abhorred by a Christian than all the torments and deaths you can heap upon her. But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more.

Reeve, A.M. The Apology of Tertullian. Chapter 50. http://www.tertullian.org/articles/reeve_apology.htm Accessed 2/22/2013

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What a New Testament Church REALLY Looks Like

I’ve listened to many pastors and church leaders talk about how they model their church after the early Christian churches.  They want “a church that looks like the church of the New Testament” they say. The idea that we are closely aligning ourselves to the model that James, Peter, Paul and others had of church is appealing to the modern mind, especially as a reaction to the formal, liturgical structure that had become prevalent for so many centuries.  Indeed, even cults like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same claims, following the Restoration Movement of the early 19th century.



There’s nothing wrong with trying to align ourselves with the teaching of the apostles as closely as possible; in fact I think it’s laudable.  But for all the talk about modeling ourselves after the early church, I don’t think many truly capture what those early Christians had to give up for their Lord.  A good example of that early Christians did face can be found in the story of Said Musa. Musa is a citizen of Afghanistan who converted the Christianity about eight years ago and is now sentenced to death for the “crime” of his conversion. While serving in the Afghan Army, he had one leg amputated, an experience which he then used to counsel other amputees while working for the Red Cross.

A recent National Review article paints his picture well:
He was forced to appear before a judge without any legal counsel and without knowledge of the charges against him. “Nobody [wanted to be my] defender before the court. When I said ‘I am a Christian man,’ he [a potential lawyer] immediately spat on me and abused me and mocked me. . . . I am alone between 400 [people with] terrible values in the jail, like a sheep.” He has been beaten, mocked, and subjected to sleep deprivation and sexual abuse while in prison. No Afghan lawyer will defend him and authorities denied him access to a foreign lawyer.

Any and every human being who is imprisoned, abused, or tortured for the free and peaceful expression of their faith deserves our support, but Musa is also a remarkable person and Christian. In a letter smuggled to the West, he says, “The authority and prisoners in jail did many bad behaviour with me about my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, they did sexual things with me, beat me by wood, by hands, by legs, put some things on my head.”

He added a thing much more important to him, that they “mocked me ‘he’s Jesus Christ,’ spat on me, nobody let me for sleep night and day. . . . Please, please, for the sake of Lord Jesus Christ help me.” (View the full letter here)

He has not, in fact, even appealed to be released, only to be transferred to another prison. He has also stated that he is willing to give his life for his faith. “Please, please you should transfer me from this jail to a jail that supervises the believers. . . . I also agree . . . to sacrifice my life in public [where] I will tell [about my] faith in Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, [so] other believers will take courage and be strong in their faith.”
To me, this is the true face of Christianity. Musa’s story reads like something right out of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I laud him for his faith and his willingness to die for it, but it shouldn’t be this way.  You see, this is no longer the first century and Christians are no longer in the minority.  The United States is a nation built upon Christian principles and, given our presence and influence in Afghanistan now, WE should be able to help Said Musa.  But help doesn’t seem to be coming.  President Obama felt justified to personally step in when a single pastor threatened to burn some Qur’ans in Florida, but he remains silent on Said Musa –even after Musa pleaded with him directly in his letter. The U.S.is losing soldiers trying to help establish the Afghanistan government; and yet they insist on perpetrating this flagrant violation of human rights. Does this make sense at all?  Silence by our president in such an instance is atrocious.

Said Musa’s attitude in the face of martyrdom, like Stephen’s in the book of Acts, shows what true Christians look like who have given everything for their Lord. I wonder to what degree our own government will allow the persecution of Christians and Christian ideals to continue without comment before all Christian churches start to resemble the New Testament church in ways that we may not like.
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