IS GEORGIA MOVING FROM RELIGIOUS PLURALISM TO RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM?

Giga CHIKHLADZE
Irakli CHIKHLADZE


Giga Chikhladze, Correspondent, Profile magazine, co-founder of EuroKavkAsia Association (Tbilisi, Georgia)

Irakli Chikhladze, Correspondent, Profile magazine, co-founder of EuroKavkAsia Association (Tbilisi, Georgia)


As distinct from certain other former Soviet republics, society in Georgia did not plunge into the spiritual and moral vacuum when the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and the communist ideology and atheism had been discarded. Indeed, in Georgia the Church preserved its positions and influence even under the strict Soviet regime. From time to time Communist Party members who held official posts went to the church for baptisms, funeral services, etc. They did this secretly; this habit was more obvious in the countryside.

The most prominent dissidents were also connected with the Church (suffice it to mention here two better known of them: Zviad Gamzakhurdia and Merab Kostava). Patriach of All Georgia Ilia II personally attended mass rallies at the most critical moments of the national-liberation struggle of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Independence, the conflict in the South Ossetian Autonomy and disintegration of the Soviet Union, political and military confrontation in Abkhazia, civil war, and economic disruption sent Georgian society into a shock. It was divided, the Christian Orthodox Church could not unite the people no matter how hard it tried while the state moved away from the daily concerns of the common people and did nothing to alleviate them. As a result, people turned to the missionaries of all sorts of confessions and religious movements who have recently started to arrive in the republic. All of them have come not only with a promise of salvation but also with money for immediate needs: this is one of the methods by which they win the people over to their side.

In Georgia missionaries of all sorts of religious movements unheard of in the republic appeared and became active in the middle of the 1990s. At first, they had no problems, yet after a while they became aware of the pressure of sham Christian Orthodox organizations. Here we have in mind Vassili Mkalavishvili, the priest excommunicated by the Georgian Orthodox Church, and his followers who declared a holy war on the sects and heretics. This activity is unfolding with latent support of the police and the government. The Patriarchate remains neutral.

Here is a bit of history. The best-known Georgian rulers Vakhtang Gorgasali (5th century) and David Agmashenebeli (late 11th-early 12th centuries) laid somewhat higher taxes on the Christians than on the Muslims and followers of other religions. This was done to demonstrate tolerance for all religions. There was also a conviction that the Christians should give more to their Orthodox Christian homeland than, for example, Muslims.

Since old times Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have been living side by side in Georgia. In some of the highland areas Christianity blended with local pagan beliefs to form an intricate complex. For twenty-six centuries Jews and Georgians have been living together: this is a splendid example of religious and ethnic tolerance. There was not a single Jewish pogrom in Georgia. Even in the period when militant atheism was being forced on the Soviet peoples and when in revolutionary Russia churches were razed to the ground, in Georgia the Bolsheviks simply ignored them. The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was the only sad exceptionit was destroyed to give space for the House of Government (today, the parliament building).

It is common knowledge that the KGB of the U.S.S.R. used mental hospitals as prisons for dissidentsthere was not a single case of this in Georgia, the fact of which the Georgian psychiatrists are justly proud. All this says that even under the communists Georgia preserved relative freedom and tolerance, two things that have been always present in Georgian society.

To illustrate Georgian tolerance today it is not enough to mention the area in Tbilisi called Meidan where one can see a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox Christian and a Gregorian church standing practically side by side. Today, world community is attracted no so much by peaceful coexistence of religious confessions (that are at daggers drawn in many other places of the world) but by religious extremism and persecution of religious minorities, the Jehovahs Witnesses, in particular. Today, this has developed into a serious problem that interests many humanitarian and public organizations abroad. The problems of sects and religious minorities, religious extremism and religious intolerance have acquired topicality they never had before. The attitude to these problems is far from unambiguous.

Connivance or Support?

The parliament and the government are obviously of two minds in relation to the war former priest Father Bassili (this is how Vassili Mkalavishvili is known) is waging against the Jehovahs Witnesses. On the one hand, there are voices saying that such war cannot be tolerated, on the other, few are prepared to defend the sect.

The TV graphically demonstrates this so-called diplomatic approach: they show with satisfaction how printed matter published by the sect is burnt. At the same time, they follow the no comment principle: we are showing you whats going onit is up to you to draw your own conclusions. The freedom of choice principle in action.

One can agree that no normal person can accept the principle of fighting the Jehovahs Witnesses by sword and fire and to be taken for one of Father Bassilis crowd. At the same time nobody can find it easy or pleasant to side with the sect.

The Jehovahs Witnesses have been in trouble for a long time: the police can easily sort things out but do nothing. Are they following instructions from above?

One can agree that it is necessary to fight sectarianism that disunites the formerly united country. But does the end justify the means? One doubts it: we should not ignore the pogroms. Indeed, whose turn will come after the Jehovahs Witnesses? If this organization threatens the state, it should be opposed according to laws.

Once society grows accustomed to the lynch law, it may reject laws altogether.

Kommersant newspaper (Russia), 5 June, 2001

Is Sectarianism Dangerous?

The leaders are facing five years in prison and $700-thousand penalty for repeated violation of the law. The French deputies believe that the new law (aimed mainly at sects) should serve a much-needed push for the rest of the world.

Italy has no laws designed to regulate the sects, yet there is a legal ban of secret societies that can be used against religious sects. Until 1998, in Germany under the Christian Democrats official contracts had special provisions banning employment of sect members or even ordering goods from them. Many of the sects were under surveillance.

The parliament of Sweden insists that students in schools and patients in hospitals should be informed of the dangers of sectarianism.

Internet site NTV, 20 December, 2000

The Supreme Court of the FRG Refused to Recognize the Jehovahs Witnesses

The Supreme Court of the FRG confirmed the decision of one of the courts of lower instances that refused to recognize the Jehovahs Witnesses as an official organization. The court also passed a decision about additional investigation about its correspondence to the German laws.

Earlier, in 1997 the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that the Jehovahs Witnesses should be deprived of its legal status as an organization urging its followers to abandon active political and social life.

Internet site LENTA.RU., 25 June, 2000

France Banned Religious Sects

According to BBC News, the French National Assembly approved the law banning sects on the countrys territory. Under the new law mental influence, or brain washing, becomes a crime.

The minister of justice of France does not doubt that the new law is an important achievement that will allow the state to legally oppose the sects that are undermining the state values.

* * *

Several European states have already banned the Jehovahs Witnesses. Should Georgia follow the example of these democratic states known for their respect for equal rights for all? In case of a positive answer this is a job for serious lawyers working for the government and the Patriarchate. The latter has been insisting on legal struggle against the sects. It is commonly believed that if the state interferes in the struggle, Georgia will be subjected to sanctions of the European community. Will the world community hail pogroms?

Recruiters or Missionaries?

There is an opinion that the Jehovahs Witnesses attract people by promises of material and other support. But this is not all: its members are included into a circle of people with similar interests, membership in the same organization and shared leisure, in short, everything that many of us miss so much. Society has been deprived of its class structure and is trying hard to create if not fully-fledged classes then social groups united by interests and the faith.

Have many collector or sport clubs survived? Are their many closely-knit church parishes within the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church? The answer is: regrettably no.

Not all people are satisfied with watching TV after hours in a small flat and limit their leisure to this. Few have money to travel on weekends.

The country suffering from economic difficulties, disunited society that has lived through two armed conflicts and a civil war, lack of faith in the future and vague prospects are a fertile soil for all sorts of ideas sown by missionaries.

We have raised the question about the religious situation in the country in the Tbilisi media and got an answer. The Jehovahs Witnesses were the first to respondstrangely, they selected deputy Guram Sharadze for a dialog. He had won twice in the court of justice, and the sect was deprived of its legal registration in Georgia.

This is what members of the Jehovahs Witnesses sect Guram Kvaratskhelia, Levan Chigladze, and Gia Simonishvili think. Public relations department of the Jehovahs Witnesses.

What the Attempts to Ban Religious Minorities Will Do

Progressive public in Georgia and abroad is outraged by the barbaric attacks on the religious community of the Jehovahs Witnesses. Armed with truncheons Vassili Mkalavishvilis crowd burst into buildings where the community holds its meetings and beat up defenseless women, old men, and children. Many of them were crippled.

The public want to know: How can the country claiming that it follows the road of democracy allow manifestation of medieval vandalism in the third millennium? This is a question many people ask. Why are there still people who believe that such crimes are nothing of the ordinary?

Who Recognizes the Religious Minorities and Who Protects Them?

Guram Sharadze failed to finally ban the Jehovahs Witnessesbut the organization was deprived of its official registration in Georgia.

It is interesting to note that the Jehovahs Witnesses are officially recognized in more that 200 countries and territories including the United States, Canada, Japan, the European countries, Russia, Ukraine, and other CIS countries (except Turkmenistan), Turkey, Pakistan, India, Latin America, Africa, and other regions. In some European country (Italy) the Jehovahs Witnesses are the second large religion. Italy is going to sign a concordat between the government and the sect.

On the other hand, the Jehovahs Witnesses have no official registration in China, North Korea, and in some of the Islamic fundamentalist countries.

Other historical analogies suggest themselves: in Germany there had been over 20,000 members of the Jehovahs Witnesses when Hitler came to power. In 1933 the Hitler government deprived them of state registration, after that they were subjected to persecution. In 1934 they accounted for up to 10 percent of inmates of concentration camps; 6,000 Jehovahs Witnesses were sent to concentration camps for their rejection to hail Hitler, to obey his inhuman regime, and to serve in the Nazi army. Two thousand followers of the sect died in the camps. Under Hitler nearly 98 percent of the sect members were persecuted in one form or another. In the Soviet Union members of the Jehovahs Witnesses were treated very much in the same way. In 1949-1951 over 5,000 families from the Western regions were forcibly moved to Siberia where many of them were put in concentration camps. Persecutions continued till 1991 when all the repressed sect members were rehabilitated as victims of political repressions.

So what does Guram Sharadze want? One gets an impression that he has selected the second road where the human rights are concerned.

Legal Remedy

At all times the Jehovahs Witnesses have been acting openly in the democratic countries though from time to time the organization needed legal remedy. In the United States it has already won 43 trials in the Supreme Court and confirmed that they were acting totally within laws.

The European Commission and the European Human Rights Court passed 11 decisions in favor of the sect. The Court qualified its religion as a known one, which means that it has no secret teachings and rites and nothing contradicting the generally accepted humanitarian values. The decision on Manousakis vs Greece says that the sects activity was completely protected by Art 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms that registers the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and the related activity. The article also envisages limitations as are prescribed by law. The high court unanimously agreed that these limitations did not apply to the Jehovahs Witnesses.

On 13 April, 1999 a group of deputies of the Council of Europes Parliamentary Assembly from 11 countries officially expressed their concern over violations of religious freedom in Europe connected with an attempt of legal persecution of the Moscow Jehovahs Witnesses community. Earlier, on 11 March, 1999 the European Parliament had passed a special resolution calling on the federal and local authorities of Russia to ensure freedom of religion and to abide by the international conventions and pacts on human rights.

Russia took this into account and, on 29 April, 1999 re-registered the sects administrative center according to Russian legislation thus recognizing that the sects religion had been present in Russia for over 50 years. (In fact the sect has been functioning in Russia for over a century.) Today, more than 370 communities of the Jehovahs Witnesses have been registered in 70 federation subjects of Russia.

The government of Russia and the Ministry of Justice do not object to the sects presence in the country. Mr. Sebentsov, one of the members of government, recently said that the process of registration of religious organizations should be simplified.

One wonders whether Mr. Sharadze is aware that he and the extremists are using their political influence to set Georgia against the rest of the civilized world.

Lies Have Short Legs

What can one say about the accusations hurled at the Jehovahs Witnesses?

Refusal to Use Donor Blood

Those who say that the refusal to use blood transfusion is suicidal are wrongthis is absolutely clear, at least, for doctors. First, all patients, including members of the Jehovahs Witnesses, have the right to decide which type of treatment they prefer. Second, it is a well-known fact that donor blood may kill as well as save lives. It may contain a lot of dangerous infections transmitted with the blood transfused: AIDS, hepatitis, syphilis, fungus and parasitic diseases. On 23 May, 2001 a newspaper published in Tbilisi (Rezonansi) informed that certain patients caught AIDS during blood transfusion. It is a well-known fact that donor blood causes allergic reactions and suppresses the patients own immune system.

On the other hand, there are reasonable medical alternatives to blood transfusion that allow doctors to avoid it in nearly all cases. According to American professor Richard Spence, no surgery today requires obligatory blood transfusion. Successful heart and liver transplantations in many countries confirm this.

The Jehovahs Witnesses refuse to be submitted to blood transfusions, first, because of religious reasons and personal convictions based on the Scripture that ye abstain from blood (Acts 15:29). Second, there are medical considerations: they use medical alternatives and willingly disseminate the knowledge about the latest medical achievements in this sphere. Today, there are up to 90,000 doctors throughout the world who use bloodless methods of treatment and are prepared to share their experience. In the United States alone there are over 100 programs of bloodless medicine. In the CIS over 2,000 doctors are devoted to these methods, some of them live in Georgia.

Refusal to Serve in the Army

The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights accepts refusal to serve in the army and alternative service as a legally justified expression of ones religious convictions protected by Art 9. Georgian laws also provide for alternative service. Teymuraz Pandzhikidze, head of the department of religious studies and ethics of Tbilisi State University, said in his interview to the Sovershenno nesekretno (Absolutely Non-Classified) newspaper: First, our state should not allow people to reject their civic duties for religious considerations. This is especially important in case of military service. I think that we should establish alternative service that should not be easy. This is a problem of the state, not of an individual. If a man prefers imprisonment to eighteen months in the army, society should treat him differently. This is a case of personal choice of young people. The sect does not prohibit military service for its members and does not urge others, outside the sect, to avoid military service.

What Next?

Obviously, in a democratic state religious convictions are a subject of civilized discussionand nothing more. Physical violence against those who follow non-traditional religions, legal bans imposed on law-abiding citizens who support religions recognized everywhere in the world cannot be accepted. In Georgia, as elsewhere, slander is a crime.

Time has come for the democratic public and the media in Georgia to defend religious freedom in this country. We should bear in mind that in a state ruled by the law the rights and freedoms are inseparable. History has demonstrated that all violations of the fundamental rights of freedom of conscience and confession inevitably end in a collapse of all other democratic achievements.

An opinion of deputy of parliament Guram Sharadze, Academician of the Academy of Sciences of Georgia, chairman of the parliamentary commission on compatriots abroad and repatriation of Georgian national values abroad (archive of the authors)

I use only civilized methods

It was three years ago that the political association Gruziaprezhde vsego appealed against an illegal decision of the court of Isani-Samgori that allowed to register a Jehovahs Witnesses organization. We won the case. The registration was annulled. The decision was final and not subject to cassation. This means that we have won the final battle and managed to prove documentarily that the Jehovahs Witnesses had been illegally registered in Georgia, that they were struggling against the Georgian statehood, the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church, and peoples health, after all.

Members of these organizations are fighting the state by preventing young people of the conscription age to serve in the army. This is an attempt to weaken the Georgian army.

I have the support of such great states as Germany, France, and Russia (all of them members of the Council of Europe) that are still fighting these anti-state, anti-national, and anti-church organizations. As for the accusations that I am using uncivilized methods I should ask: What can be more civilized than a court trial? I do not brandish cudgel in the streets. Neither myself, nor my party physically oppose the Jehovahs Witnesses, we have used the methods accepted by the civilized world: courts and laws. I spoke to them in the language of law and won in the court.

Armenia, our neighbor, adopted a law that banned the sect on its territory in 1990. This did not prevent it from joining the Council of Europe.

I want to stress that their activity is anti-state, anti-national, and anti-church. I also want to say that I am fighting them with civilized methods, that I have the laws of Georgia on my side and that other civilized states support the struggle against the sect.

Official position of the Georgian Patriarchate in relation to the Jehovahs Witnesses.

Zurab Tskhovrebadze, representative of the press center of Georgian Patriarchate

Does the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church Bring Any Charges against the Jehovahs Witnesses?

I should say first of all that we do not call them the Jehovahs Witnesses since Jehovah was one of several names of God (but not the only one as the sect asserts). I am convinced that the use of this name in the negative context is an unintentional sin. We call them the Russell-ists after Charles Russell, the sects founder. The Church does not bring any charges against them but exposes them as desecrators of the most sacred Christian objects. Having proclaimed themselves true Christians, they distorted and disfigured Christian dogmas. They recognize Christ as the earthy incarnation of Archangel Michael, which is one of the worst blasphemies. The sect rejects the fact of soul immortality and preaches that after death the soul either disappears or decays. This is what they call Christianity. Speaking about persecutions of the sect I should say that the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church has never initiated any pogroms or persecutions. It has never sanctioned vandalism nor called others to it; it has never organized crusades. The Georgian Christian Orthodox Church has always displayed tolerance for other confessions. This is amply confirmed by its 1,500-year-long history. At the same time, I should say that the attempts of the Russell-ists to pass for an innocent lamb are in vain: they have been in Georgia for a relatively short time, yet have supplied enough irrefutable facts to accuse them of hostility toward church shrines. In recent years we have registered numerous acts of vandalism caused by Russell-ists in Christian Orthodox churches. Here are several examples. In 1998, according to local people, Russell-ists destroyed a chapel in the village of Tsdo (Kazbegi District); in May 2000 Russell-ists desecrated the holy objects in the St. George church in the village of Khovla (Kaspiiskiy District). Criminal proceedings were initiated and sank in the quagmire of bureaucracy. An exalted sect member burst into the altar of the Lower Bethlehem Church in Tbilisi, desecrated the Holy Scriptures and toppled down the icons. In 1998, in the city of Martvili Christian Orthodox priest Gocha Tsaava was attacked by a Russell-ist wielding an axe. A 13-year-old subdeacon who accompanied the priest was hospitalized with a nervous shock. Criminal proceedings were started but the attacker was never put on trial. In the same city one of the teachers of the secondary school No. 2, a Russell-ist Nina Gabisonia, ordered children to wipe off the church they had chalked and banned them to wear crosslets. The children refused to obey the ban. There are many more facts of this kind. We state that the sect is an anti-state organization that endangers the countrys security by calling on the youth to avoid military service. Defense of the motherland is one of the Christians holy duties. The Russell-ists not only demand that their followers should avoid military servicethey tried to undermine fighting during the Abkhazian campaign by persuading the Georgian soldiers to betray their country.

Blood transfusion has nothing to do with the Bible. The Church regards deliberate refusal to use blood transfusion in case of need as a suicide. A mother that rejects blood transfusion for her small child unable to make independent decisions kills him. A child is too young to consciously select religion and cannot decide whether he wants to be a member of the sect. His parents make this decision for him and they sentence him to death if he needs blood transfusion. This was what happened to 7-year-old Sofiko Chikvadze from Tbilisi whose father, a sect member, banned blood transfusion for his daughter. As a result the girl died. There was another publicly known fact: a seventy-year-old patient in a Tbilisi hospital required urgent blood transfusion. Since he was unconscious the doctors, according to the rules, asked his son for permission. The son, a Russell-ist, refused, although his father, who was a Christian Orthodox, never shared his sons religious convictions. The old man died. Obviously, his son, duped by the sect, is responsible for the death. Sect members insist that there are 100 percent blood substitutes. This is a lie. There are cases when blood transfusion alone can save life; sometimes substitutes are too expensive.

The court trial that ended in an annulment of two Russell-ist organizations in fact banned two organizations that had registered themselves as humanitarian while being purely religious organizations. We should also point out that the followers of Charles Russell speak about their pacifism only when the Motherland needs protection. When dealing with groups of different religious creeds they are not pacifists at all.

A Crown of Thorns for a Religious Extremist

Here are three opinions supplied by members of the Jehovahs Witnesses sect, by the legislative power, and the Patriarchate. It should be said that the problem of sects and religious extremism is widely discussed in the Georgian media. The West also responds to what is going on in our country: international organizations (the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee against Torture, the U.N. and the U.S. State Department) published documents that expressed their concern over increased religious intolerance in Georgia.

On the other hand, according to the ombudsman Nana Devdariani, the present economic, political and social situation in the country prompts many people to look for enemies responsible for this. Indeed, the sects that have recently came to Georgia fill the role to perfection. The ombudsman says: These are examples of religious intolerance, limitations and discrimination of the freedom of confession and conscience.

The Jehovahs Witnesses lodged a complaint with the European Human Rights Court that has not yet passed a decision. Meanwhile, the Georgian TV continues illustrating stories about this sect with pictures of bloody faces, torn clothes, and burning religious literature.

We cannot say that there is a wide-scale public persecution of the sects members. They talk about religious extremism aimed against them; they mean, first and foremost, the Dzhvari organization from the city of Rustavi and the excommunicated priest Vassili Mkalavishvili who insists that he is a Christian Orthodox. Despite this, his followers attacked sect members. He also promised to settle scores with those members of the Georgian parliament who allegedly support the Jehovahs Witnesses. His people attacked several offices of the Georgian media, and demanded that the Rezonansi newspaper and radio station Radio 105 be closed down.

Elene Tevtoradze, Koba Davitashvili, Mikhail Saakashvili and other deputies of the parliament hotly deny that they support the Jehovahs Witnesses. They insist that they are campaigning for the constitutional principle of the freedom to choose religion.

The police regularly fail to appear at places where meetings of the sect are attacked or, at best, arrive when fighting is over. Meanwhile, the ombudsman believes that the police alone cannot find a way out of the present impasse. She adds: As a private person I understand why the police prefer not to interfere.

Certain media believe that Father Bassili has contacts in the policehence his immunity. There is an opinion that he coordinates his attacks with the law enforcement structures and this helps him avoid responsibility. According to the non-governmental Human Rights Watch organization, policemen took part in such attacks.

Guram Kvaratskhelia, spokesman of the Jehovahs Witnesses organization, says: We are amazed that the state structures of Georgia remain passive (archive of the authors). According to him, members of his sect have been beaten up more than 80 times for the past several years while the prosecutors office and the Ministry of the Interior received nearly 500 complaints from victims. Nevertheless, none of the culprits was punished.

Vassili Mkalavishvili has been called to court several timesbut no court decision followed. He himself is talking about persecutions of his followers.

There is a strange situation when the two opposing sects (the term borrowed from the Patriarchate of the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church which calls the Jehovahs Witnesses an anti-government sect and the Mkalavishvili crowd, the anti-Christian Orthodox sect) are claiming the crown of thorns of the religious martyr.

It should be added that both have staked on the least protected social groups by promising salvation from all troubles or by gathering people under the banner of a just struggle against the forces of evil.

Refugees from Abkhazia are very active in the secthaving lost homes and trust in the state they became an easy prey of the Jehovahs Witnesses.

Pogroms and the immunity of those who beat up members of the sect are an alarming factor that forces followers of other confessions to think about their own future.

It seems that these apprehensions and the fear to lose the traditions of religious tolerance that have survived in Georgia for many centuries forced members of the Roman Catholic, Evangelic Lutheran, Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Evangelic Baptist churches to set up, early in 2002, a work group to implement the ideas of ecumenical unity of all confessions.

The group has already published The Ecumenical Charter that suggests, in particular, that the dialog among the churches should be continued at all levels and that it should be established what the churches can and should explain to the public in connection with this dialog; the churches should oppose all forms of nationalism that lead to suppression of other ethnic groups and ethnic minorities and should insist on non-violent methods of conflict settlement; freedom of religion and conscience of individuals and groups should be accepted as a norm, and all people should have the right to practice their religions or state their views within the laws individually or collectively, in private or in public.

In Lieu of a Postface

An alien observer might find it strange that there is a crusade against those who follow non-traditional religions in the country that for many centuries exhibited religious tolerance. What happened?

There is an opinion that aggressive acts of Vassili Mkalavishvilis sect that stirred up and split the public is rooted in the aggressive methods by which the Jehovahs Witnesses sect recruits its supporters. In short, what one side does causes rejection and an aggressive response of the other side. There is a situation in which the sides involved profit from the clash: both acquire more reasons to recruit more members. The number of those who watch the battle from aside is melting away.

Those who have been to Georgia saw the so-called wishing trees on which members of all confessions tie colored ribbons to make their desires come true.

This is a pagan riteit has survived till our days as a symbol of religious tolerance that was reigning in Georgia.


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