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Posted on Tue 7 February 2023

Christians in Pakistan: Retrospect and Prospect -Politics of Hate

The Christian story in Pakistan is a long one but it is also discontinuous and disrupted. Archaeological discoveries in Taxila have provided some support for the late 2nd century claim in the Acts of Thomas, written in what is now South Eastern Turkey, that the Apostle Thomas went to India in the service of an Indian King called Gondaphares. He preached the Gospel and ministered to the poor there, eventually converting Gondaphares and his court.He then went on to work in other parts of the country and, in the end, was martyred by being pierced with spears.Until the 19th century all of this was regarded as ‘ Apostolic romance’ , that is, legends about the Apostles sent out by Jesus. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, coins and steles were discovered to a king called Gondaphares, who ruled an Indo- Bactrian kingdom which covered the area known as Gandhara. The coins are in both Greek and a Prakrit vernacular.The Greek on the coins, moreover, is of a form used only between c. 20-60AD! It is well known that this area had been under the influence of the Achaemenids and the Seleucids and thus Aramaic influence also cannot be discounted. Knowledge of Greek and Aramaic in the region meets the objection that if St Thomas went to India, in which language did he preach to the people? The main question, however, is: how did a romancer, writing in the 2-3rd centuries in what is now Turkey, know that there was a king called Gondaphares in what is now North West Pakistan in the 1st century? There seems to be knowledge of Indian culture in the Acts and behind the Acts romancing there lies an even older historical work, the Passio Thomae, which has been suitably embellished, in the light of his interests, by the author of the Acts.These hard facts are supported by others like an accurate description of Gondaphares’ palace in Taxila by the author of Acts and the discovery of the Taxila Cross, an ancient cross, which resembles other such Indian crosses, and is now in the custody of Lahore Cathedral.1

Whatever we may say of the ‘ Northern Theory’ about St Thomas’ arrival in the sub-continent, we cannot ignore the fact that the ancient St Thomas churches of South India, who also claim that they were established by St Thomas, have a long and continuous history.Just as there are points of connection with the North, so there are with the South. It seems that there was a Jewish presence there and this would have made communication possible between St Thomas and the local populace.It is possible that Thomas went on to other parts of India( the Acts explicitly states this) and Rooney tells us that we must entertain the probability of Thomas making more than one journey to the sub-continent.2

As Bishop Young of Sialkot has shown, there continued to be bishops in Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Kashgar until the 14th century and , no doubt, they would have had a concern for missionary work in the areas that now constitute Northern and Western Pakistan.3

1.See further John Rooney, Shadows in the Dark, Rawalpindi, Christian Study Centre, 1984, P29ff, William Young, Handbook of Source Materials, Serampore, ISPCK, 2009, P25f, M. Nazir-Ali, From Everywhere to Everywhere: A World View of Christian Mission, London, Collins, 1990, P25ff.

2. Alexander Mar Thoma, The Mar Thoma Church: Heritage and Mission, Kottayam, Ashram Press, 1986, P1ff, William Taylor, The Syrians of Syria and South India in Henry

Hill(ed), Light from the East, Toronto, Anglican Book Centre, 1988, P88f, Rooney, op.cit., P42f.

3.WG Young, Patriarch Shah and Caliph, Christian Study Centre, Rawalpindi, 1974, P37ff.

Whatever we may say of the earliest times, the next ‘window’ into a Christian presence does not occur until the 16th century. Christian presence was of two types: there seems to have been a significant ‘oriental’ Christian component in the Mughal armies.These Christians were often termed ‘Armenians’ but, in fact, this term covered all types of Eastern Christians: Copts, Syrians, Greeks, as well as Armenian.There seems to have been a Christian quarter in cities like Lahore both for these expatriate and also for local Christians.There was an ‘ oriental’ Christian presence at the Courts of both the Emperors, Akbar and Jehangir: one of Akbar’s wives, Maryam Begum, had a Christian background and he seems to have had a Christian adopted son. Although no church building, of an Eastern type, has been found, the well known wall paintings in the zenana at Lahore Fort, although badly damaged, suggest an Eastern origin, showing a bishop with a patriarchal cross, Jesus praying in Gethsemane, someone reading from the Bible or a service book, sacraments being administered etc.It is known that the orientals wished to present Akbar with a Persian translation of the New Testament but the Jesuits, at the Court, suppressed this because they wished to check it for consistency with the Latin Vulgate, a task not completed until Akbar’s son, Jehangir, was on the throne!We know also that bishops of the Eastern tradition came to Mughal India to minister to their people there.4.

The second type is, of course, related to the the arrival of Western missionaries.Among the first of these were the Jesuit missions to the Mughals. There were three such missions during Akbar’s time, all at the Emperor’s express invitation.The first, consisted of an Italian, a Spaniard and a Persian.They engaged enthusiastically in the interfaith dialogue and debate which Akbar was encouraging. They were also given permission to preach and to make converts.They established schools and hospitals.The missionaries were, mysteriously, ordered to return to their base in Goa, just as Akbar was appearing to be more receptive to their message.The second mission was specifically directed at Lahore, where the missionaries began a school for the sons of the nobility. Once again, the mission was withdrawn because it was felt that the Emperor had no intention of becoming a Christian and the opposition of the ‘Ulema was growing.The superiors of the mission seem not to have understood the value of presence and of service and were fixated on the Emperor’s conversion, hoping that this would lead to mass conversions in the population.

The third mission was led by a relative of St Francis Xavier and had much more success in planting a church among the poor in Lahore, as well as maintaining a presence at the Royal Court. Akbar gave them permission to build a church and Prince Salim( later to be the Emperor Jehangir) funded its construction in the last decade of the 16th century. This church was destroyed several times but a church still stands on the site provided by the Mughals and has been identified as such by the distinguished Pakistani archaeologist, Dr Majeed Sheikh.The mission continued under Jehangir who even had the sons of his deceased brother baptised! A story is told that the Jesuits wanted all Christian converts to be paraded through the streets of Lahore on elephants, as the princes had been, and as it was the custom to parade converts to Islam on elephants. Jehangir seems to have had no objection but asked why they shouldn’t be paraded on donkeys in imitation of Jesus who had entered Jerusalem on one. Eventually, a compromise was reached; the converts

4. See further John Rooney, The Hesitant Dawn, Rawalpindi, Christian Study Centre, 1984,

P49f,77, 94f and passim, M.L.Roy-Choudhry and Roy Chaudhry Sastri, Position of Christians in the Mughal Empire, Indian History Congress, Vol5, 1941, P347-353.

would parade on elephants but the priest, baptising them, would come on a donkey!

The church in Lahore continued to function until after Jehangir’s death. The Emperor himself attended often and, it was claimed, that he either asked for baptism on his death bed or even that he was baptised.5

While the mission in Lahore is of the utmost importance, we should not neglect the Carmelite mission based in Thatta in the South. Thatta, and its sister port of Lahri Bandar, was an important Mughal city in those days and may well have retained vestiges of an ancient Christian presence. The Carmelites served both the expatriate European and Eurasian population, as well as the local people. The mission seems to have been well contextualised in the culture and provided educational and other services to the local community. Like other Christian places of worship, the church was destroyed under Shah Jehan and the educational work closed down under Aurangzeb.6

The Jesuit commitment to inculturation is shown in their mastering of both Persian, the language of the court, and Urdu or Hindustani, the emerging vernacular of Northern India.Some of the work done by them on the geography, government and languages of India remained the standard for many years.They also produced fine manuscripts of Christian apologetics, the most famous being the Mir’atu’l Quds or The Mirror of the Sacred, being an account of the life of Jesus Christ.There are several surviving manuscripts but the oldest of them is in Lahore Museum.Both in these manuscripts, and separately, they produced a tradition of Christian miniatures in the Mughal style, with themes from the Bible, the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles and Saints and much else.7

Although the fortunes of the Jesuit and Carmelite missionaries waned after the accession of Shah Jehan, and even more under Aurangzeb, we know that a Christian presence continued in Lahore until well into the 18th century- that is to say, just before the advent of Protestant missionaries like William Carey and his companions to Northern India.There had been Anglican presence, in the form of chaplains to the East India Company since the 17th century, but the Company was hostile to missionary work among the indigenous population, until it was forced to yield by an act of the British Parliament. In spite of its hostility, there were some remarkable chaplains who were interested in reaching out to the people in the land, among them was Henry Martyn, the great translator of the New Testament into Urdu, who carried out a thorough revision of the Persian New Testament and Psalms and began the work in Arabic before his tragic death in 1812 at the age of just 31!

Carey’s involvement in the newly founded Fort William College was crucial in the development of vernaculars like Urdu and Bengali which had, hitherto, been neglected in favour of classical languages like Persian and Sanskrit. Alexander Duff arrived from Scotland, and with the support of reform minded Indians, initiated a programme of liberal arts education for the young.This model of mission as education was to become very popular throughout the subcontinent and to it we owe the existence of Forman Christian University, the Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore, Murray College Sialkot,

Gordon College, Rawalpindi and Edwardes College, Peshawar.Numerous schools were also established with the aim of both providing the best education for children and also

5. Rooney, op.cit., P31ff, 57ff.

6. Rooney, ibid, P68ff, 87f, 91ff.

7. Rooney, ibid, P71ff and Khalid Anis Ahmed(ed), Intercultural Encounter in Mughal Miniatures, Lahore, National College of the Arts, 1995, P37ff, 79ff.

witnessing sensitively to the Christian faith. It is true that much of this effort was, at first, directed towards the Hindu and Muslim elite and succeeded in its aim of creating a class of those open to modern knowledge. To a lesser extent it also created small groups of Christian leaders who were crucial to the growth and development of the nascent church in Northern India and what is now Pakistan. 8

Although the Eastern rite Catholic Churches in South India have had a hierarchy for long, and so also the Church in Goa, in what is now Pakistan, Roman Catholic missionary work began again after 1830.In Sindh, it was resumed after the British conquest of 1842 and a hierarchy of sorts was created in the Punjab from 1880. Once again, there has been heavy involvement in education and health work, much of which continues. As with other churches, while a number of institutions have catered for the elite, there has also been considerable educational, social care and health work among the poor, especially, but not only, those from the Christian community.Both indigenous and foreign religious orders have played a major part in the missionary work of the Catholic Church.9

At first, in the 19th century, missionaries gave much attention to Muslims, Sikhs and Caste Hindus. Except in one or two cases, such as that of the Narowal Khojas, this did not result in mass conversions, though there were some outstanding individuals who contributed a great deal to scholarship and the development of a theological tradition. As the Indian scholar, James Massey, has pointed out, in the middle period of the 19th century, the missionaries, as well as Indian Christians, were very wary of reaching out to the lower castes, in case this jeopardised the Church’s work amongst Muslims, Sikhs and Caste Hindus. It was only in 1870 that a lower caste man, named Ditt, was brought by another convert to a missionary for baptism. The missionary refused to baptise such unpromising material but Ditt persisted and was eventually baptised. He then became a missionary among his own people which resulted in the mass movement of lower caste people in that area into the Christian faith.10 it was not only amongst this group that there was a response to Christian mission. Other groups such as Balmikis, Mazhabi Sikhs, Faqirs and Scheduled Castes in the Sindh have continued to be evangelised and brought into the churches.

In the areas in the sub- continent under consideration, the so-called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes constitute around a third of the population as a whole. If other ‘ lower castes’ are included, the majority of people are from the ‘ lower castes’. It shouldn’t be a surprise that religions like Islam, Sikhism and Christianity, which reject caste, should attract those who have experienced discrimination and rejection. There have been many examples of ‘low caste’ groups converting to Islam, sometimes in the very locations, like Sialkot, which have seen Christian mass movements.The point is that it is unremarkable

8.on all of this see Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, London, Penguin, 1986, P223ff and Jocelyn Murray, Proclaim the Good News: a short history of the Church Missionary Society, London, Hodder, 1985, P24ff.

9. D.Barrett, G. Kurian &T.M. Johnson,World Christian Encyclopaedia, New York, OUP, 2001, P570ff and J.Rooney, On Heels of Battles: A History of the Catholic Church in Pakistan 1780- 1886, Rawalpindi, Christian Study Centre, 1986.

10. J.Massey, Christians in North India, in Religion an Society,XXXIV, vol3, 1987, P88f, Stephen Neill, op.cit.,P309, F and M. Stock, People Movements in the Punjab, William Carey Library, South Pasadena, 1975.

to say that the majority of Christians are from these backgrounds, because the population as a whole has very substantial numbers of such people and, in suitable circumstances, some are inevitably attracted to an egalitarian faith like Christianity.11

The New Zealand sociologist, Wayne McLintock, has divided the ethnic background of Christians into a number of categories: those from Caste Hindu or Muslim family backgrounds( although many have emigrated because of persecution and discrimination), Goans and South Indians, especially in Karachi( again much depleted because of emigration), Anglo-Indians( many have left Pakistan), Tribal background Christians, mainly in the Sindh and South Punjab and Punjabi Christians of varying backgrounds but mainly from the mass movements among the Scheduled Castes. To these we can add a few from the ancient churches of South India, Armenia etc.

The distribution is uneven, with the vast majority in the Punjab but substantial numbers in cities like Karachi and among nomadic groups in the Sindh. 12

We have noted already the contribution of Christians, both local and foreign, to education and health. Generations of Pakistanis, of all faiths, have been taught by Punjabi, Goan and other Christians. Until quite recently, Nursing, as a profession, was virtually a Christian monopoly.It is most encouraging that there are now many more Muslim nurses.Christian hospitals and clinics continue to deliver medical care, sometimes, in the most remote locations. Apart from the health and education sectors, Christians are to be found in banking, journalism and a host of other professions. The already creaky sanitation system of the country would collapse completely without the thousands of Christians who work to keep the land of the pure clean! In law and in the Judiciary, Christian s have played a significant role, when they have been given the opportunity. Chief Justice AR Cornelius, a devout Roman Catholic, was hugely influential in the framing of both the 1962 and the draft 1971 Constitution.The latter was accepted even by the Islamist parties but rejected by the leader of the secular Pakistan People’s Party, ZA Bhutto, on the grounds that it had been drafted by a dhimmi, that is a non- Muslim second class citizen.In the Armed Forces also, Christian officers and soldiers have played a distinguished role in the defence of the country and have been recognised as such by successive governments.13

Most of the above is often acknowledged by political and other leaders in Pakistan. What is, perhaps, less well known is the part plated by Christians in the movement for Pakistan and in its creation. At the gathering in Minto Park ( now Allama Iqbal Park) in Lahore, where the ‘Pakistan Resolution’ was passed in 1940, a distinguished Christian delegation, consisting of Dewan Bahadur SP Singha, Joshua Fazal Din, CE Gibbon, FE Chaudhry, SSS Albert, Rajkumari Amrat Kaur and others, was present. Chaudhri Chandu Lal, a member of the Muslim League’s Executive, made an impassioned speech asking that the equal rights

of Christians and others groups should be embodied in any constitution of the new state. This was warmly endorsed by the Quaid-E Azam and the Muslim League.In November 1942, the Christian members of the Punjab Provincial Assembly held a reception in honour of the Quaid, which was also attended by his sisters and by leaders of the Muslim League. At the reception, SP Singha, on behalf of the Christians present, promised to support the creation of reply, Mr Jinnah said that if the Christians joined them “we will

11. World Christian Encyclopaedia, op.cit., P570.

12.Wayne McLintock, A Sociological Profile of the Christian Minority in Pakistan, Missiology, vol20, No3, 1992, P343-353.

13. See further George Felix, Christians in Pakistan: The Battle for Justice, Salford, Agape Press, 2001 and Ralph Braibanti, Chief Justice Cornelius of Pakistan, Karachi, OUP, 1999.

forever be grateful to you”.The Christian members went on to support the Muslim League in its opposition to the partition of the Punjab. When this particular aim was not achieved, the Christians met with the Quaid and his sister to assure them that they would support the inclusion of West Punjab in the state of Pakistan.When it came to a vote in the Assembly, the numbers for and against were tied at 88-88. The Christian members, Singha, Gibbon and Fazal Elahi, then cast their votes with the Muslim League, thus ensuring the inclusion of West Punjab in the new state.One can only imagine what Pakistan would have been like without its Punjab! The same day, SP Singha used his casting vote, as the Speaker, to prevent India and Pakistan having a common National Assembly by voting for a new National Assembly for Pakistan. For such acts of courage, these members were threatened with death and grievous bodily harm by their opponents. Not to be deterred by these, the Christian members appeared before the Punjab Boundary Commission, under Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and voiced the Christian community’s preference for Pakistan.14

Having made such a signal contribution to the creation of Pakistan, we can see why Christians have such a grievance about what has happened since. From the very beginning, when the Hindu and Sikh zamindars( or landowners) fled to India after partition, their Christian landless labour began to migrate to the cities and towns to take up sweeping as a living and, like many other refugees, building make-shift homes for themselves in the bustis(or slums) that were emerging at the time.Many of these areas have become disadvantaged ghettoes, with minimal public amenities and services.They have also had the effect of segregating the communities from the mainstream of national life and creating an inward looking and self regarding mentality.

The Objectives Resolution of 1949, now attached to the Constitution, is quite general in tone but declares that the polity of Pakistan is to be based on Islamic principles ,whilst giving full freedom to Non- Muslims to profess and practise their faith. It also echoes Article18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights in safeguarding freedom of thought, expression and belief.Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister, declared at the time, that it was not a charter for theocracy and it seems to echo the Quaid’s desire for a polity based on Islamic ‘ideals and principles’. It has been taken, nevertheless, by those who wish to impose an Islamist ideology on the country as a point of departure for the inexorable ‘Islamisation’ of the laws and policies of the nation. Many of those wanting an ideological state were the very ones who had opposed its creation in the first place on the grounds

that it would divide the Muslim strength in India and because they did not believe that Jinnah was a suitable person to lead the Ummah.

The Objectives Resolution has been followed by waves of Islamisation: successive declarations of Pakistan as an Islamic Republic, the increasing limiting of official positions to Muslims(under President Zia the reason given was that the head of a department also has to be the imam in leading prayers and , therefore, a pious Muslim), the enforcement of Shari’a on Muslims and Non-Muslims alike and much else besides.For Christians, this has meant increasing marginalisation and a feeling of unjust victimisation.The system of separate electorates increased this sense of marginalisation because local members of Parliament knew that Christians and other minorities could only vote for their candidates on a national slate and so had no relevance to local politicians and their electoral fortunes.Its reversal to joint electorates, with especial seats for minorities, in addition, on the basis of party strength in the assemblies, is not perfect but, at least, gives minorities a stake in local democracy and the election of representatives to national and provincial legislatures.

The enforcement of Shari’a, with Hudud penal law, has further disadvantaged Non- Muslims.A Non- Muslim lawyer cannot appear in a Shari’a court but a Non-Muslim can be punished by it.Where Hudud crimes are concerned, Non- Muslims cannot be witnesses, even where the crime has been committed against a Non-Muslim.

The bête noire, however, of all these are surely the the Blasphemy Laws. It is often claimed that these laws date from the time of the Raj and have not been invented by Pakistan. It is true that there have been laws since then against outraging religious sentiment, desecrating a place of worship or insulting a religion.The laws were carefully drafted and the maximum prison sentence was 2years.They were hardly ever used.What has made Pakistan’s laws notorious are the amendments which first introduced life imprisonment or death for desecrating the Qur’an or insulting the Prophet of Islam and then made the death sentence mandatory for insulting the Prophet.

Quite apart from questions, asked by Muslims, whether these laws correctly reflect the Sunnah or practice of the one they believe to have forgiven those who insulted him, the capacity of these laws to be misused to settle personal scores, to whip up mob hysteria against individuals or communities and to introduce fear in Non- Muslims is beyond dispute. Since their implementation in the 1980s and 90s, people of all faiths and of none have been charged with the offence of blasphemy but Christians and other minorities have been charged in numbers quite disproportionate to their actual population, according to the government’s own figures.Once charged the local Police comes under huge pressure to prosecute and the local, and sometimes higher, courts are intimidated to convict.

The need surely is to return to laws which protect all religions from gratuitous insult, though not criticism, and where the punishment is proportionate to the offence.In the meantime, there is an urgent need, first of all, to make sure that everything has been done to conciliate the parties and to avoid bringing a charge.Some enlightened Police Officers are trying to do this. Secondly, if a charge has been registered, for the matter to be removed from local jurisdiction and referred to some central body for investigation and the decision to prosecute or not. I am not generally in favour of special courts sitting in camera but if ever there is a case for these, this is it. The decisions of such courts should, of course, be appealable in the higher courts. I believe that some such simple administrative steps would make it more difficult to misuse this law, whilst other

solutions are being sought.Such steps would greatly reassure minorities that their people will not be plunged into life threatening situations at the whim of those who have an ulterior motive or wish to stir up hatred against a person, family or community.15

The nationalising of Christian and other schools and colleges in 1972 was, however, carried out by the secular and socialist Pakistan People’s Party under Mr Bhutto.Not only were most such institutions ruined by this action, it deprived the Christian community, in, particular, of an important means of upward social mobility.The partial return of some,

14. Felix, op.cit., P18ff, Akbar Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, London, Routledge, 1997, P255f.

15. See M.Nazir-Ali, Islamic Law, Fundamental Freedoms and Social Cohesion: Retrospect and Prospect in Rex Ahdar and N Aroney Shari’a In The West, Oxford, OUP,2010, P71ff

and their renewal, has created some hope that the churches will, once again, be able to contribute significantly to national education and to the development of their own community, as well as others. It is urgent that the remaining institutions are also returned promptly and this grave injustice is put right.

The churches have also been at the forefront of protecting workers from exploitation and the establishing of the Pakistan Christian Industrial Service was for the sake of serving all disadvantaged workers, regardless of creed.The Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, similarly, has contributed significantly to raising awareness of social issues and suggesting solutions for them. Its workers have sometimes paid for their courageous work with their lives.

What then are the prospects for a community ravaged by emigration, poverty and, in spite of its services to the wider community, the temptation to look inwards and concentrate on internal issues, conflicts and dissensions? Both vocational education, technical training, for example, and conventional education hold the key for social mobility.Organisations like Starfish are helping in the education of the poor but we need many more such initiatives.Not only government but large national and multi-national businesses need to be held to pledges to recruit minorities at every level in the organisation.Assistance for entering and operating small businesses will create mobility not just for the owner but for those employed in the business.This is happening already but the scale needs to be increased. Unless Christians and others feel they have a stake in the country they helped to create, the situation will not change significantly.

The question of numbers remains a thorny issue.Official censuses put the number of Christians at less than 2% but I know from personal experience that this is a significant underestimate: the official figures show that Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, had 100,000 Christians.When I mentioned this to the clergy there, they laughed and said that just one area where Christians live had that number! There are more than 1000 churches in Lahore District alone.16The World Christian Encyclopaedia, a highly respected source, puts the number of Christians at 7.5 million by 2025 or around 3% of the population.17 The U.K. Home Office’s Country Policy and Information Note on Pakistan’s Christians and Christian Converts sets out a number of figures but the most reliable of them puts the number in 2018 at more than 6million.18The only way the exact figure could be settled is by a census conducted by the churches themselves but they lack the resources to do so. I understand that the Hindu community has conducted some kind of census and this has

greatly strengthened their hand in negotiating with the government and local authorities regarding services, access to education and jobs and development grants.

In the end, what we need in Pakistan is a change in mindset which recognises all citizens as equal, with equal responsibilities and rights.The contribution of all those who have contributed to its creation and welfare should be acknowledged. Christians need to emerge from their ghettoes to take their rightful place in society and to continue working for the well being of all their fellow citizens. Freedom of expression, belief and worship are a sine qua non of a democratic society and Christians and others need to be free from the fear of sudden allegations of blasphemy, mob violence and terrorist attacks. The future of Christians in Pakistan depends on whether the country chooses to follow the path of its founders and to become an open, democratic society or to follow those who opposed its creation and now wish to turn it into a theocratic state where only one kind of narrative is allowed to prevail.

16. On church buildings, see Safdar Ali Shah and Syed Javaid Kazi, Churches of Pakistan, Lahore, Constellation, 2010.

17. World Christian Encyclopaedia, op.cit., P570.

18. Home Office, Country Policy and Information Note on Pakistan’s Christians and Christian Converts, London, 2018, P14ff.

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