Wacky pastors fret over Ahmadinejad

temple1It’s a topic that comes up every now and then when mainstream reporters try to figure out the foreign policy implications of all of those bizarre evangelical beliefs about Israel and the end of the world.

The assumption — the journalistic template — seems to be that there is this giant voting bloc out there in red-zip-code land made up of premillennial dispensationalists who can’t wait for Israel to triumph, knock down the Dome of the Rock, rebuild the Jewish Temple and, thus, clear up all the messy final details that are slowing down the Second Coming of Jesus and the theological and literal shock and awe that they believe will go along with that.

Israeli leaders are always said to have mixed feelings about this Christian Zionist crowd, but, hey, it’s good for politics and tourism.

This brings us to that New York Times story with the headline “For Evangelicals, Supporting Israel Is ‘God’s Foreign Policy’” by David D. Kirkpatrick, a reporter this blog praises more often than not.

The hook for this article, which seems to have been in the works for quite some time, is the outpouring of evangelical support for Israel linked to its showdown with Hezbollah and, thus, with the looming shadow of Iran. A key figure in this is the Rev. John Hagee of San Antonio, which leads us to this summary:

Many conservative Christians say they believe that the president’s support for Israel fulfills a biblical injunction to protect the Jewish state, which some of them think will play a pivotal role in the second coming. Many on the left, in turn, fear that such theology may influence decisions the administration makes toward Israel and the Middle East.

Administration officials say that the meeting with Mr. Hagee was a courtesy for a political ally and that evangelical theology has no effect on policy making. But the alliance of Israel, its evangelical Christian supporters and President Bush has never been closer or more potent. In the wake of the summer war in southern Lebanon, reports that Hezbollah’s sponsor, Iran, may be pushing for nuclear weapons have galvanized conservative Christian support for Israel into a political force that will be hard to ignore.

For one thing, white evangelicals make up about a quarter of the electorate. Whatever strains may be creeping into the Israeli-American alliance over Iraq, the Palestinians and Iran, a large part of the Republican Party’s base remains committed to a fiercely pro-Israel agenda that seems likely to have an effect on policy choices.

Mr. Hagee says his message for the White House was, “Every time there has been a fight like this over the last 50 years, the State Department would send someone over in a jet to call for a cease-fire. The terrorists would rest, rearm and retaliate.” He added, “Appeasement has never helped the Jewish people.”

Now it seems that the Left Behind Right has locked its sights on a new Antichrist figure — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There are all of the usual reasons for this paranoia, such as Holocaust denial and visions of large clouds over Israel. Kirkpatrick does a fine job covering that in as little space as possible.

Ahmadinejad unIt seems that Ahmadinejad was the hot topic for many discussions at the recent “Night to Honor Israel” at Hagee’s San Antonio megachurch. However, we are not told much about what these evangelicals had to say about the president of Iran.

What topics did the 5,000 or so pastors and activists discuss? A few specifics would have been nice.

For example, I predict that one of the hot topics — not mentioned at all in the Times piece — was the following passage from that high-profile speech that Ahmadinejad made at the United Nations. When reading these words, please remember that the subject of this news feature is a complicated set of beliefs held by some — repeat, some — evangelical Christians about the Second Coming of Jesus and the impact that their beliefs may or may not have on American foreign policy.

In words avoided by most American news outlets, Ahmadinejad said the following as he neared the end of his message to the world:

“I emphatically declare that today’s world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet.

“O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.”

Like I said, I think the odds are good that this open call for the apocalyptic return of the Twelfth Imam in all of his victorious glory was one reason that Hagee and his pastor allies were buzzing about Iran and Ahmadinejad’s quest for nuclear weapons.

It’s possible. It might have been a good topic to discuss in the article. You think?

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Hearing different Sunday morning messages

ben cardin and michael steeleA Jewish candidate and a Catholic candidate square off in a statewide race with national implications. What happened the Sunday before Election Day? They went to church, of course.

Just a few miles south of the hotly contested race for one of Maryland’s seats in the Senate, which pits Democratic Benjamin Cardin and Republican Michael Steele against each other, two major newspapers in the nation’s capital squared off in their coverage of the churchgoing politicians. A major issue in covering this collision of politics and religion is, of course, the possibility that their appearances could upset the Internal Revenue Service. Both reporters address the matter, albeit in very different ways.

The Washington Post‘s Ovetta Wiggins and Hamil Harris covered a range of services and came to the following conclusion regarding this hot-button issue:

Pastors exhorted their congregations to cast ballots tomorrow but were careful not to declare support for individual candidates, lest they run afoul of rules for nonprofit organizations.

“I think I’d get in major trouble if I made an endorsement,” Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr. told the several hundred worshipers at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington yesterday. “But I think I can say, ‘I wish you well.’”

Careful regarding the rules, you say? How about reporters being careful before making generalizations? How’s this for being careful? My friend Jon Ward of The Washington Times writes:

The top two candidates in Maryland’s U.S. Senate race attended black churches yesterday in the key battleground of Prince George’s County, and received clear and not-so-clear endorsements from the pulpits.

“Everyone who’s your color is not your kind,” the Rev. Delman L. Coates told the mostly black congregation at Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton. “All your skinfolk is not your kinfolk.”

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democratic nominee, who is white, looked on from the front pew as Mr. Coates subtly disparaged supporters of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican nominee and the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland.

“On Tuesday, we have to have more on our minds than color,” the preacher told the roughly 1,500 parishioners. He rattled off a list of unsympathetic black people, including the slave who alerted the masters to Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 and the black man who shot Malcolm X in 1965.

Ouch. That’s not very careful of Coates with regard to the IRS rules. Clearly the reporting by the Post‘s Wiggins and Harri was not as thorough as Ward’s. Or maybe two reporters cannot be at every church service and they should just avoid overarching statements like “Pastors … were careful not to declare support for individual candidates.”

It’s also important to note that the pastor may be able to skirt the official rules by phrasing his statement as “This is just what I think personally.” But is that what he is doing in his Sunday-morning sermon?

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Who outed George Allen?

george allen2The apparent destruction of the presidential ambitions of Sen. George Allen, R-Va., has been interesting to watch. The story goes several layers deep, and I’ll do my best to probe the more interesting, religion-oriented ones in this post. Feel free to post your thoughts on how religion was played in the hundreds of articles written on the politician who has been dubbed the darling of the religious right and a clone of President Bush.

The candidate one would think would benefit the most from Allen’s implosion is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, but that remains to be seen. Check out what The Revealer wrote Monday on the issue:

The liberal blogs, Salon, and now the mainstream media (AP) have been making hay out of Allen’s bigotry, but the media that matters in this case won’t be public. It’ll be email. It’ll be telephone calls. It’ll be the quiet, behind-the-scenes conferencing by Christian Right powerbrokers who are about to pull the rug out from Allen.

Nailing down who pulled, or will pull, the rug out from Allen’s presidential hopes is tricky, but one thing is for sure, it was not the mainstream media. As best I can tell, The New Republic (as tmatt likes to say, that right-wing rag to which we link a lot) started it all with a couple of Ryan Lizza articles on April 27 and May 15 that addressed Allen’s “race problem.” Here we found out that Allen had a long association with the Confederate flag, among other sketchy things.

Then Allen famously uttered “macaca” (video) and all hell broke lose on his campaign, including renewed speculation that he could be Jewish. That ended up being true, but Allen didn’t appreciate it very much, as revealed in this snarky Washington Post piece by the religious right’s favorite columnist (sarcasm on), Dana Milbank:

At a debate in Tysons Corner yesterday between Republican Allen and Democrat [Jim] Webb, WUSA-TV’s Peggy Fox asked Allen, the tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing son of a pro football coach, if his Tunisian-born mother has Jewish blood.

“It has been reported,” said Fox, that “your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?”

Allen recoiled as if he had been struck. His supporters in the audience booed and hissed. “To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don’t think is relevant,” Allen said, furiously. “Why is that relevant — my religion, Jim’s religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?”

“Honesty, that’s all,” questioner Fox answered, looking a bit frightened.

“Oh, that’s just all? That’s just all,” the senator mocked, pressing his attack. He directed Fox to “ask questions about issues that really matter to people here in Virginia” and refrain from “making aspersions.”

“Let’s move on,” proposed the moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Yes, let’s — but not before we figure out what that was all about. Turns out the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that the senator’s mother, Etty, “comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family” and continued: “If both of Etty’s parents were born Jewish — which, given her age and background, is likely — Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.”

george allenSo as the Post and others play catch-up on the story that Allen is not a very good person and is sensitive about his heritage, one has to wonder what instigated it all. Was it just an unfortunate falling of the cards that instigated Salon investigations and subsequent catch-up stories (followed of course by the Associated Press and the Post) into whether Allen used the N word while playing football at the University of Virginia? The mainstream media have been all over the “live” events, such as the video and Allen’s reaction to the Jewish question, but they’ve done little hard reporting, which has been reserved to less mainstream left-of-center publications.

Is this a liberal attempt to oust a senator with hopes of regaining a Senate Majority? A smart Democrat would save this material for 2008 in order to throw the GOP presidential nomination process into chaos. Who is attempting to out what appears to be at worst a closet, or at best a former, racist and possible bully, before he became the religious right’s standard-bearer?

Ryan Lizza’s articles in The New Republic didn’t happen in a vacuum. I doubt he woke up one morning and thought, “I need to investigate Sen. Allen’s racial attitudes.” I also doubt that Michael Scherer of Salon thought, “I will call all of Sen. Allen’s teammates from his time as the quarterback of the University of Virginia to find out if he said some racist things back in the day.”

And to cap it all off, the issues raised in the book by Allen’s sister, Jennifer, in her book Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter, have been around for six years (surviving Allen’s first election) and no one seemed to notice until now. So what gives?

Who is out to trash a potential leading candidate of the religious right?

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It’s time for reporters to face the facts

moses tabletsLet me pause to plug an item or two over at Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s blog, in large part because he has veered totally into GetReligion territory with repeated appeals for journalists to actually cover the doctrinal contents of the current story about Pope Benedict XVI and Islam.

But there is more to it than that and he takes this question to the next layer: Why are so many journalists simply afraid — or act as if they are afraid — to admit that the major world religions clash and that these differences cannot be minimalized without offending the religious believers involved in the stories (and doing shallow, inaccurate jouranlism at the same time)?

Thus, Rod writes, riffing on a Mars Hill Audio podcast by former NPR producer Ken Myers:

… I’m generalizing, but I’d say that the approach journalists take to reporting on Islam is palliative; that is, it seeks to soothe the public’s concerns about Islam by presenting it merely as a misunderstood faith. Episcopalians in hijabs and kufis. Of course it’s laudable to want to teach the public more about any faith as a way of dispelling prejudice, but when you take that approach, you run the risk of hiding aspects of that faith that the public would find offensive or unsavory. Worse, you yourself become incurious about things that about which you should be curious. And you do both the integrity of journalism and your readers a disservice by refusing to pay attention, and to ask the tough questions.

From there, Dreher leaps over to a weblog at The New Republic (that well-known right-wing rag) that offers a commentary by Jacob T. Levy on precisely the same topic.

Under the header, “Taking religion seriously,” Rod posts this sobering clip from Levy (advance warning to all Unitarian Universalists):

It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it’s serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards “No man comes unto the father but through Me” is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don’t expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don’t think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive; indeed, my sympathies for the aesthetic and moral-psychological experience of religious belief tends to run the other way. This is a bit like the stance of many American lapsed Catholic or many Israeli secular Jews, I incline to say, “I don’t believe in God, but the God in whom I don’t believe is a serious one!” But I don’t quite mean that. Rather, I want to say that if there is a point to religion and theology, then that point is undermined by the reluctance to draw distinctions and take them seriously.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

In other words, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity cannot be both right and wrong. The Ten Commandments can’t be suggestions and still be commandments, for those who practice Judaism. Christians do not believe that Jesus was a nice guy and Muslims do not believe that he was the Son of God. Hinduism and Mormonism are not the same faith, even if both are polytheistic. Islamic teachings about the nature of God, and the role of reason in faith, cannot be reconciled to Roman Catholic beliefs without doing violence to both faiths. Ask the pope. Ask your local imam.

I could go on and on. All of the roads to the top of the mountain called salvation cannot be the same, unless, of course, they are all wrong and there is no mountain anyway because there is no life to come or there is no such thing as salvation and/or damnation.

So it’s hard to cover stories about traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others if you are not willing to admit that they have a right to their beliefs and that journalists have a professional responsibility to try to get the facts about those beliefs right.

End of sermon. Thanks for the links, Rod. And I hope The New Republic does a cover story on this issue.

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So what did the Muslim leader say?

032540 184887 02OK, I’m curious.

Godbeat reporter Teresa Watanabe has a report out in the Los Angeles Times about a hot skirmish on the front lines of interfaith life. The issue? Should the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission reaffirm its selection of veteran Muslim leader Maher Hathout to receive a major human-relations award after two weeks of hot debate? Only four of the 14 commission members ended up voting for him, but that was enough — due to those who declined (were afraid?) to cast a vote.

Here’s the heart of the story:

Hathout said he was not concerned by so many abstentions and called the vote a victory for free speech, inclusiveness and a rejection of the “tactics of intimidation.”

“We will not allow untouchable and sacred cows in the midst of our democracy,” said Hathout, referring to Israel. He added that he was accepting the award for the “Jews, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and Muslims” who supported him.

The furious fight over what has normally been a quiet award selection process was sparked when some Jewish groups charged that Hathout, a 70-year-old retired cardiologist, was a closet extremist who denounced Israel as an apartheid state and was soft on terrorism. Their opposition prompted the commission to reopen its July decision selecting Hathout.

. . . The Muslim leader, in remarks before the commission vote, offered to meet in a dialogue with critics and expressed regrets for harsh language toward Israel.

Now, this raises two questions that I, as a reader, would like to see answered. The first is quite simple: What did Hathout say, that led to his statement of regret? The second is a bit more involved: What evidence did his critics present when they made a case that he was a “closet extremist”?

That is a loaded, loaded term. What was the evidence that they presented? If the Times can report the charges that they made, can the newspaper offer any hint as to the evidence they cited? In other words, can someone please tell us what Hathout has said and done that is so troubling? There are paraphrased references, but no direct quotes pinned to specific dates and places.

One can, of course, find one-sided websites that offer more than a few hints. Or readers of that right-wing rag The New Republic can click here.

Personally, I think it would have been good for the Los Angeles Times to have risked addressing these issues, in the same story in which it used that “closet extremist” label. Input, we need input.

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Liberal anti-Semites on the rise?

coverThe other day I received a blunt, fiery, angry email. It was from an anti-Semite who was mad at me for writing a Scripps Howard News Service column in which I quoted several Orthodox Jews discussing the meaning of repentance and forgiveness in Judaism and, in particular, why they thought that Mel Gibson — if he is a serious Catholic believer of one form or another — was going to need to do more than seek out a few good photo opportunities on a holy day or two.

This ugly letter kind of came out of right field at me, because most of the negative email I received about that particular column came from the Jewish left. Perhaps the writer was just mad, period. Perhaps he would have come out firing with all guns at any column that said the vile language Gibson used was sinful and should lead to repentance, confession and serious efforts at change (the kinds of sacramental efforts that have helped the actor in the past).

But I also have to confess that I was surprised to get a letter from a right-wing, secular anti-Semite. It had been so long since I had been exposed to that particular brand of poison. However, I have been paying attention in recent weeks to some interesting essays that have raised questions about anti-Semites on the left. It seems that some people in the Democratic Party are worried about this and, at the same time, journalists are trying — honest, they are trying — to figure out where anti-Semitism ends and fierce opposition to the actions of the state of Israel begins.

Thus, I have not seen an actual news report on this trend. At the moment, it’s hovering at the level of op-ed columns by unusually candid voices on the left. There is, however, no question about who first put the topic into mainstream print. That would be former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, in his much-quoted Wall Street Journal essay, “Liberal McCarthyism — Bigotry and hate aren’t just for right-wingers anymore.” You see, Davis made the mistake of supporting Joe Lieberman. We all know what that means in the new blogosphere:

Here are just a few examples (there are many, many more anyone with a search engine can find) of the type of thing the liberal blog sites have been posting about Joe Lieberman:

. . . • On “Lieberman vs. Murtha”: “as everybody knows, jews ONLY care about the welfare of other jews; thanks ever so much for reminding everyone of this most salient fact, so that we might better ignore all that jewish propaganda [by Lieberman] about participating in the civil rights movement of the 60s and so on” (by “tomjones,” posted on Daily Kos, Dec. 7, 2005).

• “Good men, Daniel Webster and Faust would attest, sell their souls to the Devil. Is selling your soul to a god any worse? Leiberman cannot escape the religious bond he represents. Hell, his wife’s name is Haggadah or Muffeletta or Diaspora or something you eat at Passover” (by “gerrylong,” posted on the Huffington Post, July 8, 2006).

• “Joe Lieberman is a racist and a religious bigot” (by “greenskeeper,” posted on Daily Kos, Dec. 7, 2005).

And these are some of the nicer examples.

There are, Davis said, veteran Democrats on the traditional left who have begun to worry about their own physical safety, because they do not support some of the hatred that is being spewed on the digital left. These old-guard Democrats find it hard to believe what they are seeing and hearing.

It was no surprise, then, when the gadfly Nat Hentoff took up this theme. After all, Hentoff is a Jew — right?

Hentoff started with Davis and the blogosphere, but then veered into another setting worthy of mainstream coverage.

Similarly, little noted during the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses around the country is the occasional morphing of anti-Israel hatred into plain classic anti-Semitism. For example, waving in the California sun on a campus was the regret: “Hitler didn’t finish the job!” These are not entirely rare instances. On April 3, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported: “Many college campuses throughout the United States continue to experience incidents of anti-Semitism … When severe, persistent or pervasive, this behavior may constitute a hostile environment for students in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“On many campuses,” the commission continues, “anti-Israel or anti-Zionist propaganda has been disseminated that includes age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes … that perpetuate the medieval … blood libel of Jews slaughtering children for ritual purpose … as well as Jews as overly powerful, or conspiratorial.”

Here is my question: Have I missed something? Has there been coverage of this issue in the major newspapers and newsweeklies and I simply missed it? Has anyone seen anything in The New Republic, since that is a crucial forum for these kinds of issues?

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Things have changed?

WailingWallRightWingBob sounds the alarm today about an unsourced and unfounded aside in an otherwise routine profile of Bob Dylan in The Christian Science Monitor:

Dylan, who declined to comment for this article, remains, as ever, an enigma. (Three years ago, he called himself “a 62-year-old Jewish atheist.”) But he’s more open than he’s ever been about his past, even opening himself to interviews for [Martin] Scorsese.

RightWingBob is on the scent that should be readily apparent to even armchair Dylan fans who care about his worldview:

The quote is self-evidently bogus.

It immediately reminded me of a quote attributed to Jerry Wexler — co-producer of Slow Train Coming and Saved — which is referred to in many places (try this Google search).

My friend and fellow Dylan fan Scott Marshall nails down the context in his book Restless Pilgrim:

Full of zeal, Dylan tried to interest his other producer, Jerry Wexler, in the New Testament. Wexler responded, “I’m a sixty-two-year-old card-carrying Jewish atheist.” According to Wexler, that was the end of the discussion.

Tip to Monitor editors: Wexler will, God willing, turn 90 in January. And at last report he’s still a card-carrying Jewish atheist. A most informative feature would center on which agency distributes the cards, and how often.

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Religion ghosts in the religion sports story

Shawn GreenThe New York Times Saturday used the New York Mets’ acquisition of Major League Baseball star slugger Shawn Green to write about Jews in sports. To better phrase it, the 1,200-word article was about how Jews are not involved in sports.

According to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, N.Y., there are only 18 baseball players qualified for induction into the illustrious group that includes Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg.

It’s almost needless to say that within the professional sports world, Jews have been pegged as lacking in numbers and that those few exceptions have been heralded by the Jewish community as celebrities of the highest order.

This brings us to Green. Here are the NYT‘s Andy Newman and Michael Schmidt:

Mr. Green, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks this week to give the Mets an offensive lift as they look toward the playoffs, is the real deal. He is arguably the best Jewish baseball player since Koufax. He may be the most accomplished Jew to wear a New York uniform since Harry “the Horse” Danning, a four-time All-Star for the Giants in the 1930′s.

And his people are clamoring to embrace him. “I must have gotten 20 calls yesterday and today,” said Alan Freedman, the director of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Suffolk County, who recalled bringing a transistor radio into Hebrew school in 1963 to listen to Mr. Koufax’s World Series exploits. “Everyone is asking me: ‘How can I get in touch with Shawn Green? How can I get him to come to our temple?’”

On the streets of Borough Park, Brooklyn, where Orthodox Jews predominate, Alan Moskowitz, a 33-year-old schoolteacher, said he was thrilled to welcome Mr. Green, whose baseball cards he has sought out since his rookie season in 1993.

The article is all fine and good from a sports angle, but it failed to thoroughly explore the religious angle of the story. As tmatt notes here in an April 2001 column, the number of practicing American Jews is dwindling and all practicing Jews in the U.S. are considered “Jews by choice.”

There are hints within the article that Green is one of those “Jews by choice,” such as this snippet:

Which brings up Mr. Green, a strapping six-footer with a dimpled chin, born near Chicago 34 years ago and raised near Los Angeles without so much as a bar mitzvah. In Toronto, where he became a star for the Blue Jays, he was taken into the arms of the Jewish community and became observant enough to end a 415-game playing streak by sitting out Yom Kippur in 2001.

Sitting out a game because of Yom Kippur is a pretty good sign that Green is a devout Jew, but does he observe Shabbat? Would he classify himself as an Orthodox Jew or a Reform Jew?

And I’m confused about what to make of his past. Was he even raised a practicing Jew? The article hints that he was not, but there must be more. A couple of fast facts from his Wikipedia file show that his grandfather shortened the family name from Greenberg to Green for “business reasons” and that his favorite book is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. These are somewhat random but also somewhat insightful facts that deserve further exploration.

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