Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy …

The Orthodox church that I attend is part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, which means that its ancient liturgical language is Arabic, even though our pan-Orthodox congregation uses English about 99 percent of the time.

However, during the years that I lived in South Florida — a period that including Sept. 11, 2001 — I attended a parish in which the majority of the members were of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese descent. Obviously, the ancient, and often the daily, liturgical language of this particular parish was Arabic.

Thus, when we sang one of the most ancient hymns of Christianity, the English words were: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”

However, when we sang the same words in Arabic, they sounded something like this: “Quddouson Allaah, Quddouson ul-qawee, Quddouson ulladhee la yamout, Irhamna.”

Note the presence of the word “Allaah.” That is the Arabic word for God and, in Orthodox circles, there is no doubt about that when services are sung in Arabic. The language is the language and the ancient churches of the East are older than Islam.

It is interesting to note that, here in the West, there have been lively discussions of whether — when speaking English — Muslims should simply say “God,” instead of continuing to substitute “Allah.”

In other parts of the world, tragically, these kinds of debates are literally causing riots. Here is the top of a relevant New York Times piece from the other day:

BANGKOK – An uproar among Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the word Allah by Christians spread over the weekend with the firebombing and vandalizing of several churches, increasing tensions at a time of political turbulence.

Arsonists struck three churches and a convent school early Sunday, and black paint was splashed on another church. This followed the firebombing of four churches on Friday and Saturday. No injuries were reported, and only one church, Metro Tabernacle in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, had extensive damage.

The attacks, unlike anything Malaysia has experienced before, have shaken the country, where many Muslims are angry over a Dec. 31 court ruling that overturned a government ban on the use of the word Allah to denote the Christian God.

Though that usage is common in many countries, where Arabic — and Malay — language Bibles describe Jesus as the “son of Allah,” many Muslims here insist that the word belongs exclusively to them and say that its use by other faiths could confuse Muslim worshipers. That dispute, in turn, has been described by some observers as a sign of political maneuvering, as the governing party struggles to maintain its dominance after setbacks in national and state elections in March 2008.

And there you have it. In this story, the entire conflict is about politics and Malay identity. If you are going to say you are truly Malay, then this means that you are Muslim. If you are a Muslim, God is Allah. If you are not a Muslim, you are (a) not worshiping Allah and (b) not truly Malay.

The story does, while offering detailed discussions of the political realities, pause to give us the crucial numbers on who is who in this increasingly tense nation.

The tensions are shaking a multiethnic, multiracial state that has tried to maintain harmony among its citizens: mostly Muslim Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population, and minority Chinese and Indians, who mostly practice Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. About 9 percent of Malaysia’s population of 28 million people are Christians, most of them Chinese or Indian. Analysts say this is the first outright confrontation between Muslims and Christians. …

The line between race and religion is blurred in a country where the Constitution equates Muslim and Malay identities, said Jacqueline Ann Surin, editor of The Nut Graph, an analytical Malaysian news site.

“Malaysia is peculiar in that we have race-based politics and over the past decade or so we have seen an escalation of this notion that Malay Malaysians are superior,” she said.

What the story never does is give the reader any clue as to how the word “Allah” is used in worship or in religious education by different flocks of Christians and others who use the word “God.” What does this law require people to do, insert the English word “God” into texts written in Arabic or Malay? Could we have at least one practical example of what is at stake here? Is it illegal to carry a Bible containing the proper “Allaah” language?

I have more questions. Is this an issue in Catholic rites performed in Malay? Does it affect any Orthodox Christians who worship in Arabic or Malay? Is this violence targeting churches that are especially evangelistic? How many Protestants are in Malaysia? What about other religious groups that use God language?

Once again, the story does a fine job of handling the political details, but there is more to this story than politics. What are the details on the ground, in terms of how this affects the actual religious groups whose sanctuaries are being burned? How does the current law affect their lives? Are they rebelling against it in their pews and at their altars? How?

Just asking. This story is not going away.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Ah, the usual interest in stories about religious liberty issues overseas.

    Sigh.

  • http://matdonna.shawwebspace.ca Donna Farley

    I’m interested, Terry! In fact, I often wonder why you don’t deal with them more here…but maybe the low response is why?

    I have more questions, too. There is a Facebook group (of course!) calling for freedom for all to use the ‘name’ Allah.

    Should it be considered a ‘name’? Is ‘Allah’ the ‘name’ of the God worshipped by Muslims? Or since the Koran says there is no God but Allah (no God but God, no Allah but Allah), does it matter?

  • dalea

    While it is interesting to have the religious breakdown, it would be helpful to also have some sense of the geographical distribution of the different groups. Are there areas where one group is dominant? What is the urban/rural split for the various groups? How far back does each religion’s presence go?

    Why is a story about Malaysia have Thailand as its byline?

  • Matt

    According to this website, Christians in Malaysia are approximately 2/3 Protestant and 1/3 Catholic, with Orthodox a tiny minority. It also mentions that Islam is a minority in East Malaysia (i.e., the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo), which means that the Muslim majority must be even stronger than 60% in the economically and politically dominant Peninsular Malaysia.

    According to Wikipedia, the large majority of Malaysian Christians live in the two Borneo states, which respectively are 42% and 28% Christian. Kuala Lumpur is 5% Christian, the mainland states all 4% or less.

  • Peter

    Why is a story about Malaysia have Thailand as its byline?

    Isn’t a dateline based on where the story was reported and written? The NYT probably has a bureau in Bangkok. It’s likely no one was on the ground in Kuala Lampur

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    How about the media getting straight about Middle Eastern immigrants coming to our country. Yes, millions are Moslem and get tremendous media coverage–BUT— huge numbers are Middle Eastern Christians fleeing Moslem violence directed against them–and they get virtually no coverage giving the impression that Middle Eastern immigrants are virtually 100% Moslem. In our area there are large Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) churches and a thriving monastery. There are Melkite (Middle Eastern Catholic) Byzantine churches and a seminary.
    And from the religious press I gather there are huge numbers of Chaldean (Iraq Catholics) in the Detroit area and large numbers of Coptic (Egyptian) Christians in the LA area. But the media seems to regard the Middle Eastern immigrant communities in these cities as purely Moslem.

  • Jerry

    Terry, please don’t confuse lack of comment with lack of interest. I know it’s probably hard to believe, but sometimes I read posts here and really have nothing special to say about them. Or perhaps I have something to say but nothing that could be cast, even tenuously, as a media comment.

  • http://thoughtfulfaith.wordpress.com Chucky

    Surprisingly some of the towns in Borneo (especially among the Chinese community) who are almost entirely Christian.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    this story has ugly racial undertones, since affirmative action being imposed for the Malay 49percent of the population (Some of the Muslim population are immigrants).

    And the answer for how the churches responded:only one church was completely destroyed, and that large Christian church forgave those who did it.

    One should note that although “50 Muslim” groups/NGO’s were against using Allah, it has been used in Catholic churches there for centuries.

    And one should note that several local Muslim groups are vowing to guard Christian churches.

    The real story is the Malay nationalism is being stoked by radicals, and the Middle Eastern money that is radicalizing mosques in SE Asia, trying to make them similar to Saudi, not Sufi/inculturated Islam.

  • Collin Nunis

    As a Melkite Catholic from Malaysia (currently residing in Australia), I can try to answer some questions.

    1. What does this law require people to do, insert the English word “God” into texts written in Arabic or Malay? Could we have at least one practical example of what is at stake here? Is it illegal to carry a Bible containing the proper “Allaah” language?

    [b]As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that is illegal in Malaysia is the propagation of non-Islamic religions to Muslims. The Government is of the suggestion that Christians should refer to God as “Tuhan”, which means “deity” in Malay. However, the Malay Bible as used by the Malay-speaking Christians since the 19th century, have always used Allah and has never been illegal. However, the Government has been very wary of Bibles using the word “Allah”, and have done all they can to confiscate them. I remember seeing them blanking out the Arabic and Malay versions of John 3:16 in Gideon Bibles placed in hotels. [/b]

    2. Is this an issue in Catholic rites performed in Malay?
    [b]Not entirely. The legalities surrounding this have nothing to do with worship as it there are no repercussions for praying within church grounds.[/b]

    3. Does it affect any Orthodox Christians who worship in Arabic or Malay?

    [b]I did enquire about Arabic-speaking Christians in Malaysia but a representative for the Orthodox community here did mention that the Arab Christians in Malaysia try not to mention that they are Christians and for obvious reason. There is a small community of Orthodox here, mainly Chinese converts, and a few who are Greek, Serbian, Russian etc. But in Malaysia, they worship in English.[/b]

    We do have a Coptic Orthodox community as well, but the priest is of Chinese descent and I wonder how they do it. But even if they did use Allah, it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem lies in publications.

    3. Is this violence targeting churches that are especially evangelistic? How many Protestants are in Malaysia? What about other religious groups that use God language?

    [b]Not entirely. While some of the churches involved are evangelical-pentecostal, some churches are random Catholic churches. Maybe some are involved in heavy evangelism efforts, but I don’t know how much these Catholic churches do. There is no exact figure for Protestants, but because a lot of them are not affliated with the national body for evangelicals and because some of them are underground, official figures don’t mean much. [/b]

    4. Once again, the story does a fine job of handling the political details, but there is more to this story than politics. What are the details on the ground, in terms of how this affects the actual religious groups whose sanctuaries are being burned? How does the current law affect their lives? Are they rebelling against it in their pews and at their altars? How?

    [b]The Christians are just taking it one step at a time and are refusing to initiate any protests or denounce anything. Yes, they did denounce all the attacks but they stopped short of accusing anyone or saying anything ill against any suspected people. The laws are not easy, but it is not as bad as some other countries where people can’t even publicly express their faith. I guess people here are protesting by insisting on going to church every Sunday, and praying for peace. But the Christians are not alone. The acts done here are not representative of every Muslim. An example:

    i) The opposition coalition in Malaysia, headed by Anwar Ibrahim (a Muslim), has denounced all the attacks. One of the component parties is a conservative Muslim party, and all they said was:
    - Attacks on other places of worship are unIslamic.
    - Christians should be allowed to use the word Allah.
    - Party supporters should not take part in any of the protests.

    Members of this party have even gone out to chide religious authorities for instigating these protests.

    Another example would be the efforts of some Muslim NGOs who have voluntarily come out to patrol some of the local churches to thwart any attempt of arson.

    So, there is a rebellion – not Christians against Muslims, as the Government and the media would make Malaysians and the rest of the world think. Its essentially a Government effort to create unrest in the country, a Government who has its own brand of Islam; an Islam that preaches racism, corruption, and unlawful ways. [/b]

  • Jerry

    Collin Nunis: Thank you for that report. It is a shame that your words are not published in a mainstream paper but at least we can read them here.

  • Collin Nunis

    Nancy, the fact of the matter is, the Government works along racial lines and even their Islamic faith works along those lines. There are separate mosques for Indian Muslims as well. This in Islam is a heresy.

    However, what is important is that we know that Muslims at the grassroots themselves are not against the use of the word “Allah” – just Muslims of the ruling party. They are out to create unrest and stay in power unlawfully.

  • Dave

    Terry, every so often a GR post makes me aware of something the MSM should have told me a long time ago. Yes, of course, Orthodox Christian churches with root in the Middle East will use Arabic as a liturgical language and will call God “Allah” in consequence. I’d never heard of this — but I should have. I follow world events and that detail should have been part of the package a long time ago.

  • http://2natures.blogspot.com/ Roland

    The Antiochian Patriarchate is ancient, but our Archdiocese has existed only since the early 20th century. Nor is the use of Arabic as a Christian liturgical language “ancient.” Middle Eastern Christians worshiped in Syriac and Greek for most of their history. I don’t think they used Arabic liturgically before the 18th century.

  • shafinaz a sani

    Dear friends

    Allow me to share an article written by a concerned Malaysian Muslim regarding this issue

    PAS’ Ulama ‘Disunited’ Stance on ‘Allah’ – 2 sides of the same coin?
    Posted on January 22, 2010 by admin
    Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Member of the Central Working Committee of PAS.
    I have been asked to explain and rationalise, why there are 2 seemingly opposing positions or 2 schools of thought, taken by PAS’ top ulama leaders. It is no small feat and I have never been more uncomfortable.
    Tok Guru Dato’ Nik Aziz (TGNA) the Mursyidul Am of PAS and the President of PAS DS Hj Abdul Hadi Awang (DSHA) present the proponent for ‘permssibility’ of the usage of the name of Allah by adherents of other faiths namely the Abrahamic religions (Chriatianity and Judaism), while Dato Dr Harun Din (DDHD), as the Deputy Mursyidul Am of the Majlis Syura Ulama ( and incidentally a number of Muslim NGOs and some academics), taking an opposite stance ie making it not permissible to be used by others.
    My position on this issue remains as briefly expressed in recent articles that I’ve written, one in BM entitled “Allah Untuk Semua” and the other “Can PAS remain steadfast?” My latest is an Open letter to the “Mr 1-Malaysia-Prime Minister” venting my frustration to the many unending crises of the nation. They are all in my weblog (drdzul.wordpress.com) and elsewhere in cyber and print media.
    I wanted to write this piece earlier but was willing to wait and read from others especially those religiously-trained ulama. As it is not so forthcoming, I now grudgingly pen this piece, after being requested to do so.
    For brevity and serving the interest of my lay brethren and also friends of other faiths, I’m simplifying many complicated theological discourses. Sorry, I can’t avoid using some Arabic terminologies. Perhaps it is a good exposure to some.
    Simply put, the opposing stance has come to be arrived because both ‘schools’ have taken to treat the subject from a different methodological approach, premised on two different perspectives. Little wonder of the apparently diverging conclusions.
    More interestingly, despite seemingly diverging stance and consequences, they are both within the Islamic worldview and to a large extent ‘right’ in their own perspectives. If that is mind-boggling or baffling enough for a start, let us make it simpler by using the analogy of describing ‘two sides of the same coin’. I’m trying to be fair and objective.
    The images of the ‘head’ and ‘tail’ of the coin is surely different, but it is describing the same coin, nonetheless. You don’t have to spill blood on that debate of establishing which side is right or more important. It is not about the right or wrong position, but the appropriate one ie of determining which is the relevant and pertinent position or perspective to take, given a certain context of space and time.
    For simplicity, Islam as ad-Deen or A Way of Life is premised on two main pillars:
    1. Aqidah – theological matters pertaining to Faith and Conviction in Allah (and other articles of Faith eg Prophethood, Revelation etc) and
    2. Ibadah – matters pertaining to worships ie relationship of man with the Almighty Allah.
    Both pillars being the main thrusts of the Dakwah or ar-Risalah (the Message) of the all Prophets and as well of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Dakwah is the raison deter or ‘reason of being’ of all prophets and indeed of Prophethood (Nubuwah).
    If the above assertions are understood, we could now proceed in understanding both arguments.
    Dato’ Haron Din (DHD) argues from the perspective of Aqidah, while both Tok Gurus have taken a perspective of Dakwah (and the bigger domain of Siyasah Syar’iah – Politics from the prism of Syariah), notwithstanding the importance of the earlier.
    From the discipline of Islamic Aqidah (Usuludin), Allah is a specific name of Al-Ilah or The God (Lafzul Jalalah), with the 3 aspects of ‘Unity of the Godhead’ namely: of being the Creator and Sustainer (Tauhid Rububiyah) and the Law-Giver (Tauhid Uluhiyah).Besides, there are 20 Attributes (Sifat – Al-Wujud, Al-Baqa’, Al-Wahdaniyah etc) of Allah enshrined in many verses of the Quran and 99 Names (Asma’ – like Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim, Al-Malik, Al-Quddus etc) describing these attributes (Tauhid Asma’ wa Sifat).
    The verses in the Surah (Chapter) of Al-Ikhlas (Purity) exemplified the Uniqueness of the Oneness of Allah. Allah says in Al-Ikhlas (verse 1-4):
    “Say: He is Allah, The One,
    Allah, the Eternal, the Absolute,
    He begets not, Nor is He begotten,
    And there is none, Like unto Him”.
    Based on the above deliberation, it would be safe to conclude that Islam places as cardinal principle the Unity of Allah (Monotheism) that none of the creations is like unto him. Ever since men, from time immemorial since Adam (may peace be upon him), committed the various sins of ascribing partners, in the forms of gods, lords or even sons unto Him, prophets were sent to purify the belief of Unity of Godhead.
    The discipline of Usuludin is a particular branch of the Islamic thought that serves the objective of maintaining purity and soundness of faith in the Unity of Godhead (Tauhid-Monotheism) and the other articles of faith. Within the community of believers (Ummah), a profound knowledge of Usuludin is regarded desirable and commendable as it is a safeguard against deviationist beliefs and practices.
    Up to this juncture, the argument for an emphasis of studying Usuludin particularly the various aspects of Aqidah, including the names and attributes of Allah is both convincing and cogent.
    Entrenched in this methodology, it logically follows that the name of Allah is concluded and perceived as belonging exclusively to the believers of the Islamic Faith. As it is only Muslims and Muslims alone that subscribe and profess the faith and conviction in Allah as Al-Ilah or The God, only Muslims are deemed deserving and worthy of using the name of ‘ALLAH”, much as it is also a Lafzul Jalalah, a special or specific name (nama khusus) of Allah besides the 99 names as mentioned above.
    It is going forward from juncture that the aberration begins to show up. From the perspective of this school of thought, the usage is not only disallowed by others, but now seems sure that it must be outlawed by an enactment of laws of the state.
    As the word is allegedly sacred or sacrosanct in Islam, it couldn’t be possibly used by others. Similarly ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ words like Kaabah, Syariat, Mufti, Ulama, etc, have also now been outlawed and made exclusively for Muslims in some states in the Federation. That has become the bone of contention. The assault on reason seems more pronounced in a world of information and knowledge.
    Coupled with the fear of misuse, abuse and threats of Christian proselytizing on Muslims, the outlawing of the use of the name of Allah becomes a logical progression. A perusal of the edict or fatwa of the National Fatwa Council in May 2008 depicted these underpinning and overarching reasons. The case of the banning by the Home Ministry of the name of Allah in the Malay edition of Catholic Church Herald weekly has now occupy centre-stage national controversy.
    Let us peruse the position taken by the Central Working Committee of PAS ie that of TGNA and DSHA, insofar as the usage of the name of Allah vis-à-vis the bigger mission of Dakwah of the Prophet Muhammad– spanning across 13 years in Mecca and 10 years in Medina.
    The Quran has in no uncertain terms documented that the community during the advent of the final prophet, Muhammad (may peace be upon him) had similarly used the word ‘Allah’. Allah says in the Holy Quran:
    “If you ask them, who it is that created the heavens and the earth, they will certainly say, “Allah”. Say: “Praise be to Allah”. But most of them understand not.
    (Luqman, verse 25). Similar verses could be quoted from the Chapter of Al-Ankabut: verse 65.
    Theologically, the idol-worshippers of Mecca even as they accepted Allah as Rabb (God), ascribed idols and others as gods. The reason for this polytheistic practice is clarified in the Quran in the Chapter of az-Zumar (The Groups) verse 3. “We only serve them (other deities) in order that they may bring us nearer to Allah”. They nonetheless accepted Allah as the Sustainer and Creator.
    More explicitly of the other Abrahamic religions, the mention of the word Allah is seen in the verse in the Chapter of Hajj (Pilgrimage) verse: 40. Allah says:
    “Had not Allah Check and Balance the aggression and excesses of one set or group of people by means of another, there would surely have been destruction of monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundance….” (Hajj, Chapter 22, verse 40).
    From numerous other verses, it is abundantly clear, argued the ulama of exegesis (tafseer-commentaries of the Holy Quran) that the name of Allah is not an exclusive right of the Muslims. Al-Qurtubi (1214-1273) an expert in exegesis of the Quran, concluded that in verse 40 above, Allah is not only commemorated in mosques but as well in the others places of worship of the Abrahamic faiths namely Christianity and Judaism.
    It would be imperative to note of the jurisdiction of two of the most outstanding contemporary scholars in the Muslim world, namely Sheikh Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sheikh Dr. Wahbah Az- Zuhaili who recently visited Malaysia, concerning this issue.
    Both not only endorsed it as permissible but indeed commendable as a mean to unite the Brotherhood of Humanity, though not of the Brotherhood of Faith. It is the best opportunity for us to prove that Islam and religion per se should unite and not divide us.
    Again, very clearly the permissibility of the usage of ‘Allah’ is enshrined in the Quran. That should supersede other arguments of Islamic Legal maxims as they are subservient to and couldn’t override the provision of the Quran texts and Prophetic tradition (in the methodology of Al-Istidlal).
    More importantly, it must be always reminded that the entire Quran is in fact an embodiment of the Dakwah and the Risalah of the Prophet Muhammad in the effort to establish the true meaning of “Islam as a Mercy to Mankind” – Rahmatan Lil ‘Alamin.
    Quite evidently, the thought of DDHD et al results in exclusivity and disengagement while the latter stresses on the need of Islam and Islamists to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘engaged’ in the bigger agenda of Islamic Dakwah and Islamic Political Advocacy. Engaging rather than disengaging, should be the overarching consideration of policy-makers in legislative and think-tanking position of Islamist institutions.
    While the approach of Usuludin emphasises the importance of purity of faith within the Muslim Ummah, very unfortunately it unconsciously assumes a ‘siege mentality’ when it relates to others.
    It invariably reduces Islam and namely ‘Allah’ together with other ‘sacred’ words, into an exclusive right of Muslims and must be protected from any intrusion from adherents of other faiths. You simply couldn’t engage when you are ‘exclusive’. On the contrary, you in fact marginalise hence alienate others.
    Much as it breeds contempt, it also serves as convenient fodders for distrust between religions, a situation totally contrary to the supreme purpose of Dakwah and ar-Risalah. It many sense, it has become untenable and ludicrous.
    The position of TGNA and DSHA, representing the mainstream PAS has made it categorically clear that ‘based on the Quran and the Islamic principles, the use of the word Allah by the people of the Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism, is acceptable.
    In this regard, both have again emphasised the usage of Allah must not be misused or abused or it will affect racial and religious harmony in the country. Incidentally, the former Mufti of Perlis has also stressed on the need to have clear guidelines. He said that the word ‘Allah’ could only be used to refer to the one true God and not to be ascribed to stones and idols.
    DSHA has also objected to politicising the emotive issue as this could threaten the peace among the different religious groups in the country. PAS now strongly condemns the act of intimidation and violence as a mean of cowing down the citizenry to passively submit to a new form of ‘gang-sponsored terrorism’. Very positively, both TGNA and DSHA advocated a solution of dialogue and discourse as the basis of enhancing mutual respect and understanding between religions and cultures in nation rebuilding.
    In all fairness, it must be said that PAS has finally out of age to present herself as an Islamist party that understands the need of a plural politics in the new democratic landscape of national politics.
    It must be equaly said that this position hasn’t been taken simply to appease and to win more votes from the non-Muslims constituencies. We in fact risk marginalising our core Islamist supporters from our stronghold Malay belt. Could our political nemesis, Umno stand up to say the same?
    As an Islamist Party we have to do what is first and foremost “Right” in the eyes of the Holy Quran and strive hard (making ijtihad) at contextualising it to our unique demography of a truly plural and mixed society. Yes we have to wind the middle-ground. Yes we have to win the Malay-Muslims vote. But we first seek to win the pleasure of the Almighty Allah. We seek to establish ‘Justice for All’.
    If by so doing we enjoy the trust, mandate and support of the electorates, Praised be unto Allah, The Lord of the entire Universe.
    Alhamdulillah! Allahu Akbar!

  • shafinaz a sani

    Some info regarding the long piece above (TOR, so to speak):
    PAS-Parti Islam SeMalaysia (An opposition party in Malaysia)
    Tok Guru- Learned Leaders/Elders


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