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Newsline 11 September 2015

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Assisted Dying Bill: The Church has no right to deny dignity in death

Assisted Dying Bill: The Church has no right to deny dignity in death

Opinion | Thu, 10 Sep 2015

The media give too much weight to the views of faith leaders who have failed to deal with the central issue of assisted dying, which is alleviating the suffering of others, argues Keith Porteous Wood.

While religious leaders are as entitled as anyone else to express their views about the Assisted Dying Bill - about to be debated in Parliament - there is no doubt the media give the opinions of "faith leaders" disproportionate prominence.

This week a motley crew of them signed a letter opposing the Bill which featured in practically every major media outlet.

For some reason these religious leaders tend to be treated as possessing a moral acuity denied to the rest of us. As a result I fear many will have subconsciously imagined the letter carried an extra authority simply because it carried the imprimatur of some archbishop, imam or rabbi.

Despite acknowledging significant dissent from former Archbishop George Carey, the letter gave the impression it broadly echoed the views held by the faithful the signatories purport to lead. But does it?

In reality a poll by YouGov found that only 18% of the public who identified as belonging to a religion opposed "the legalisation of assisted dying for terminally ill adults with mental capacity".

The faith leaders have also failed to deal with the central issue of alleviating the suffering of others. While their letter acknowledges "there are still instances of painful or distressing death[s]", it seeks to downplay this. I hope none of the authors have to endure such a protracted and painful death. I found it unbearable to witness the gratuitous suffering of a close, dear, relative being starved and parched to death, then becoming mentally but not physically dead. There was not a murmur of dissent from those who had gathered around the bed night after night when I anguished - "if we did this to a dog, we would be prosecuted".

Despite my strong support for the principle, I am highly critical of the legislation itself, because it simply does not go far enough.

The proposals are probably the most conservative approach to this issue of all the countries that have enacted such legislation. Even if this law had been passed in time, it would have been of no use in the case of my relative. By the time "death from terminal illness" was regarded as imminent - which is what the Bill requires - the statutory six days of wait would have been six days of agony.

However, legislators must weigh up the consequences of blocking the Bill. These include the continuation of unofficial and totally unregulated euthanasia. Most people are aware this goes on in hospitals, so it must be on a large scale, and it is awful that doctors seeking to minimise unnecessary suffering face criminal sanctions. Some of those with terminal illnesses, who know what is coming as their disease progresses and want to avoid it, will continue to be forced to make the trip to Switzerland in order to avoid further pain and indignity.

I had hoped the Archbishop of Canterbury might have reflected on the parallels between this and the Church's battle against the same-sex marriage bill, which the bishops also failed to win and subsequently lost so much respect over.

As with that battle, the majority of the population (including the religious) wanted the change and considered it a matter of compassion and yet the bishops ignored them.

On this issue, as on many others, those who rise to the top of religious organisations appear to be very much less morally progressive than their flocks.

I plead with MPs to remember that the public expects them to act with compassion. They must also remember that nothing in the Bill is compulsory. Those not wishing to avail themselves of the freedom the Bill affords need not do so.

Most importantly of all, before voting, MPs should reflect on why they think they have they the right to deny others a relatively painless and dignified death.

Keith Porteous Wood is the executive director of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.This article was originally published by Politics.co.uk.

Let Ofsted inspect religious education in faith schools

Let Ofsted inspect religious education in faith schools

Opinion | Wed, 09 Sep 2015

Religious education should receive the same scrutiny as any other area of the curriculum – and be inspected by Ofsted, argues Stephen Evans.

I recently came across a local newspaper headline about a school being praised for its religious education. As someone interested in what constitutes good practice in RE I read on.

However, it soon became clear that the school's RE wasn't being praised by Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in schools, but by the Catholic Church.

That's because in many faith schools, religious education isn't inspected by Ofsted as you might imagine, but by inspectors appointed by the school's governing body in consultation with the appropriate 'religious authority'.

All schools and academies with a religious character have their denominational religious education, school ethos and collective worship content inspected by religious groups under Section 48 of the Education Act 2005. These inspections evaluate the distinctiveness and effectiveness of a school as a religious institution. In Catholic schools they also serve to ensure schools are devoting at least 10% of teaching time to RE – as required by Catholic Bishops.

The school in the aforementioned news story was a Catholic school, which as part of its "Good" RE, teaches young children that "God is at every beginning" and about "God's dream for every family".

Just 54% of the school's pupils are baptised as Catholics, but nevertheless, all pupils are taught about the importance of spreading the "Good News of Jesus Christ".

Like many other Catholic faith schools, rather than teaching the locally agreed syllabus, the school delivers its own syllabus, in this case the "Come and See" Religious Education programme based on the theological foundations of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But should churches, temples and mosques really be determining what Britain's young people are being taught in publicly funded schools?

Many parents will naturally be keen to transmit a particular set of beliefs to their children. The big question is to what extent, if any, the state should assist parents in passing on their religious beliefs. At present religious parents are assisted by the state via the provision of publicly funded faith schools.

It is often argued that RE plays a crucial role promoting community cohesion. But when RE seeks to satisfy the demands of religious parents and is taught in a narrow and subjective way, as is the case in some faith schools, surely the opposite is true.

Our failure to successfully integrate the British Muslim community within British society is there for all to see. The proliferation of Muslim faith schools is unlikely to help. In many such schools religious education is inspected by the Association of Muslim Schools which seeks to encourage and promote schooling "for Muslim children that is rooted in Islamic principles and values". Allowing schools to approach religious education in such a partisan way clearly runs the risk of promoting separatism.

But with the religious aspects of the schools being inspected by the religious communities themselves, there is risk of this being glossed over. For example, the Association of Muslim Schools' inspection report for the Al-Hijrah School in Birmingham – where, according to the report, "all 774 pupils are from the Muslim faith" – praises the school's aim to "celebrate cultural diversity" and become an "excellent example of community cohesion". Utterly vacuous.

According to the report, the school's "whole curriculum is linked to spiritual values and Islamic beliefs". RE is rated as "Good". The school's "Good" RE includes "inserting Islamic Studies topics into different subjects regularly". Younger pupils "occasionally recite without understanding".

Another school that teaches "Good" RE according to its inspection report, is the Islamia Primary School in Brent. According to its latest report, the school is a "multi-racial community" but the report also reveals that "all its pupils are of the Muslim faith". We're told that the school's curriculum for Islamic studies, religious studies and Qur'anic studies fosters very good "sense of identity". I'm sure it does.

But isn't it disturbing that the state is so complicit in enforcing religious identities on children?

Too often "Good" RE just means "Good" inculcation. This not only undermines the academic integrity of the subject, it also undermines young people's religious freedom.

The very concept of faith schools is clearly part of the problem. But even within the current educational landscape, religious education needs a rethink. The promotion of partisan religious views should be as socially unacceptable in schools as the promotion of partisan political views – which is in fact, unlawful. Particularly in a school context, a clear distinction should be drawn between academic education and religious inculcation.

In Wales (where education is devolved), the Education Minister has called for RE to be transformed into religion, philosophy and ethics. This is encouraging. Religious education absolutely must be wrestled from those who regard it as a tool for indoctrination. Just because some parents want to shield their children from the plurality of religious and other worldviews, it doesn't mean the state must sanction it.

Whatever the future direction of RE, there's clearly a strong case for allowing Ofsted to inspect the way in which it is taught in faith schools. No part of publicly funded education should be shielded from scrutiny. The point of schools is to expand pupils' horizons, not limit them. If a narrow religious education curriculum is standing in the way of pupils becoming well-informed, open-minded and tolerant citizens, then that needs to be addressed – and Ofsted are best placed to do that.

The National Secular Society has called on the Education Committee to raise the prospect of Ofsted inspecting RE in faith schools when Sir Michael Wilshaw gives evidence on the work of Ofsted in Parliament on Wednesday 16 September.

Sectarianism in modern Britain

Sectarianism in modern Britain

Opinion | Wed, 09 Sep 2015

From Iranian dissidents fearing deportation after seeking asylum from theocracy, to ex-Muslims driven from their homes in Bradford, Iram Ramzan looks at some worrying examples of sectarianism threatening Britain's reputation for tolerance.

Peyman (not his real name) is to all appearances like any other foreign student in Manchester. He's 30 years-old, learning English and was drawn to Britain because of its reputation for religious and political pluralism, a sort of default secularism protected by the rule of law. Peyman hopes to become a counsellor after his studies.

But his smiling face hides his desperate situation. In 2010 Peyman fled the Islam Republic of Iran to seek asylum. Unfortunately for him, the authorities did not believe he arrived when he said he did and he had his application rejected. His political and religious views (Peyman is an ex-Muslim and a critic of the theocratic regime) placed him and his family in grave danger. However like many ex-Muslims applying for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution Peyman found this difficult to prove and is still appealing his case.

"[In Iran] they had proof I was an atheist, that I was against Islam and against the Ayatollah. But here I don't have proof to get refugee status."

Peyman fears being made homeless again if he loses his right to accommodation and the potentially deadly possibility of being deported to Iran. Under the theocratic regime political and religious dissent is often conflated, mirroring the fusion of state and religious power, and blasphemy/apostasy are common charges against dissidents.

Peyman's Kurdish-Iranian family have more experience of this than many. After the revolution in 1979, the regime would round up any dissidents. His older brother was imprisoned and subsequently tortured, as were some of his other relatives for their political activities. Peyman was also beaten at a police station. "Most Iranians hate the government but they can't say it," he added.

On August 26 2015, Amnesty International reported that Behrouz Alkhani, a 30-year-old man from Iran's Kurdish minority, was executed while awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal. A Revolutionary Court had charged him with "effective collaboration with PJAK" (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) and "enmity against God" for his alleged role in the assassination of the Prosecutor of Khoy, West Azerbaijan province.

Iranians were among the top five nationalities applying for asylum in Britain in the year ending June 2015. However, it is difficult to determine how many asylum applications to the UK are based on fear of persecution on the grounds of religion or belief. Some Christian groups have done important work highlighting the cases of Christians (including ex-Muslim Christian converts) facing persecution in the Middle East and/or seeking asylum. But groups supporting atheists and other religious minorities are often less resourced or politically connected.

Iranian-born Maryam Namazie helped found the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007 to break the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam. Eight years on, it seems that little has changed. Today, apostasy is a crime in 23 out 49 Muslim-majority countries. In Saudi Arabia and Iran it is punishable by death. In some countries, like Pakistan, people are accused of "blasphemy" by their fellow citizens.

Maryam said: "Those accused can be religious, including Muslims, or atheists. They may not have even done anything 'wrong'; it's an accusation that can be used by states and others in order to silence, threaten and even murder those deemed 'undesirable'."

But persecution of minorities and the enforcement of 'apostasy' taboos is also an issue in the UK. Many of those who leave the Islamic faith in this country can often be ostracised from their communities and families. Nissar Hussain (49), a married father-of-six found this out when he admitted he had converted to Christianity following the death of his older brother. His family promptly disowned him, refusing to inform him when his father had died. Even his 45-year-old wife Qubra was horrified at first, but after spending time with his Christian friends from church she also decided to convert to Christianity.

When word of Nissar's conversion got out "like wildfire", what initially started out as name calling quickly escalated into acts of vandalism.

After an arson attack on the empty house next door, Nissar decided enough was enough and moved the family to the other side of Bradford, in Manningham. All was fine until he appeared in Channel 4's Dispatches programme on Christian converts. His Muslim neighbours took offence and he recently had to quit his job as a nurse after he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after 16 years of constant harassment.

"We're in the frontline, in the trenches," he said. "The fact that it's from my own fellow Pakistanis is traumatic. The Pakistani, Muslim community needs to exercise tolerance and goodwill towards converts such as ourselves.

"They took offence, in general, to converts. We're an offence here. This is a form of terrorism. It's so very personal. It's vindictive."

Nissar worries for the fate of his children, including his Daughter Anniesa - a 21-year-old international relations student at the University of Nottingham, who has blogged about her experiences. Anniesa recalled painful memories of being rushed upstairs after dinner, in anticipation of the next brick through the window. Although the children were not brought up religiously, she says the experience has made her Christian; only her faith, she said, keeps her "sane".

"We would get called Jew dogs, at school we were told: you're a kaafir; my mum said I can't sit next to you," Anniesa said. "I realised we were different. Mum got asked in the playground, why are you wearing salwar kameez, why aren't you wearing a mini skirt now you're not a Muslim? Christianity is equated to whiteness. She said my colour is still the same, I'm still a Pakistani woman.

"I've bottled it up. Being the eldest sister you can't let it show. I see the UK as having become radicalised. Political correctness has allowed this to ferment."

When Naz Shah MP (Bradford West) was elected it was widely viewed a rejection of sectarian politics and Nissar wrote to his new MP to ask for help. Ms Shah's office confirmed that they had received the requests for support from Nissar and a multi-agency meeting was held, with ongoing matters being dealt with by the police, though Nissar does not believe enough is being done.

Whether it is young men like Peyman or the Hussain family in Bradford, it is clear religious persecution and sectarianism are issues Britain must grapple with at home and abroad. Our politicians often speak about our tolerant nation and condemn those countries that persecute their minorities. The Government must then uphold the criteria – which includes persecution – for those seeking refugee status. Protecting them is our moral responsibility.

Here in the UK, there are growing numbers of ex-Muslims who can now be helped by various organisations (CEMB and Faith to Faithless to name a few). Such organisations should be given more platforms to talk about the vital work they do to assist not just asylum seekers but British citizens who need their help. Otherwise this sectarianism will threaten Britain's long-held reputation for tolerance.

Iram Ramzan is a reporter and freelance journalist who writes on politics, foreign affairs, secularism and human rights. You can follow her on Twitter @Iram_Ramzan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

The media now say ‘Islamophobia’ without question; but insist on the “so-called Islamic State”

The media now say ‘Islamophobia’ without question; but insist on the “so-called Islamic State”

Opinion | Thu, 10 Sep 2015

Reporting of the deeply troubling rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks demonstrates that the term 'Islamophobia' has, worryingly, been widely accepted by the media.

The recent media coverage which accompanied the release of worrying hate crime statistics by the Met Police revealed, among other things, that the term 'Islamophobia' is now accepted in the commentariat as an undisputed piece of English vocabulary.

Even the common use of inverted commas to denote to the reader that 'Islamophobia' is a disputed neologism has disappeared. The Telegraph ran the headline, "Islamophobic Britain: Where Muslim women are spat on, punched and covered in faeces". Such examples of anti-Muslim bigotry are shocking but the victims' suffering is not helped by inexact discussion of the problems that exist.

This unwise loss of journalistic caution is something I predicted in April; and the recent reporting of the hate crime figures seems to have done away with the use of this rightly cautious stylistic choice completely. Compare this with the widespread practice (particularly in the BBC) of referring to the "so-called Islamic State."

We are to take then from these two linguistic preferences that Islam is something to which people have an irrational 'phobia'; and that any violent manifestation of its traditions which claim to have a theological lineage from Mohammed, are in fact nothing very much at all to do with the faith.

I believe most people see through this; but the trouble remains that it cannot be a topic of polite conversation, because very healthy scepticisms about the material results of Islam are increasingly marginalised and articulated openly only by cranks and extremists of other kinds, not afraid of social ostracism in the normal way.

All of this of course benefits Islamists; whose lackeys within academia are fully on-board with the promotion of 'Islamophobia' as a moral evil equivalent to and as defined as anti-Semitism which, incidentally, increased by a far higher percentage than anti-Muslim attacks did; not that many people in the dominant media outlets noticed or cared in anything like the same way or with comparable emphasis.

I think that most people, including those who reproduced the alarmist claims about 'Islamophobia', do so for genuinely virtuous reasons – to sound the alarm on utterly despicable and indefensible attacks on Muslims. But there is a dangerous fogginess and a lack of clarity which could easily lead to hate speech laws punishing atheists, apostates, secularists and, for instance, Christian preachers.

In fact this isn't conjecture: such things are already happening. As I write this, in Northern Ireland the shameful and sinister prosecution of the preacher James McConnell appears to go on, and in Quebec a proposed hate speech law will, boasts the man in command of its implementation, be used to target "people who would write against … the Islamic religion." These are just two recent examples and there are many others without even dipping into the repressive catalogue of such things available from the Islamic world.

It seems very clear to me. 'Islamophobia' is now the accepted term to describe violent anti-Muslim bigotry. Critics of Islam are frequently labelled 'Islamophobic'. If an accusation is repeated often enough it shortly goes unquestioned. The aggravating and despicable 'Islamophobe of the Year' awards are not given to street thugs who pull veils off Muslim women, but to dead cartoonists and liberal Muslims. So we already know what Islamists mean and want by the term.

Hate speech laws and politicians (including Britain's own Ed Miliband) are keen to be seen cracking down on 'Islamophobia' and usually do not define what they mean: the NUS never replied to my request for their definition of the term.

It won't take many well-meaning politicians very long in the near-future to criminalise people who express their lack of patience for Mohammed's claims; Tony Blair already tried something like it with his de facto blasphemy law.

As sectarianism and attacks against Jews and Muslims continue their troubling rise across the West, and as Europe (though perhaps not the UK) accepts a large number of predominantly Muslim refugees, there will be many politicians who want to clamp down on troublesome priests with no time for religious syncretism, or 'militant' atheists who dare to make the same jibes, jokes and critiques at Islam's expense as they would of any other cult and creed.

The media acquiescence to this troublesome terminology is another marker on this path, and therefore worth noting in its own right. To use a religious idiom, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Benjamin Jones is the communications officer of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author, and may not represent the views of the NSS.

The encroachment of reactionary Islamism in academic life

The encroachment of reactionary Islamism in academic life

Opinion | Tue, 08 Sep 2015

Universities and academics seeking to challenge anti-Muslim prejudice should promote genuine Muslim human rights groups rather than unrepresentative Islamists seeking to advance their own reactionary agenda, argues Dr Stefano Bonino.

Professor Max Farrar, a well-known British sociologist, recently articulated a very convincing critique of CAGE, a British group working with former Guantanamo Bay detainees and campaigning against the war on terror, which drew fire from hard-liner leftists, Islamists and CAGE's intellectual associates at the University of Bath. Farrar is also a long-standing activist in ethnic minority, anti-racism and inter-faith circles and those who know him will find the accusations that he perpetuates state racism very bizarre.

Among the respondents to Farrar's piece is Professor David Miller, a close intellectual associate of CAGE. Miller has a penchant for the Muslim Brotherhood and a dislike for power. If his work does not represent that sort of ideologically free scholarship toward which academics should aspire, Miller has nevertheless made a contribution in highlighting the social and cultural hostilities faced by many Western Muslims and the ways in which counter-terrorism policies have often ended up marginalising British Muslim communities.

However, we should all be more reflexive about whether academic work in the field has seriously contributed toward better policies or, on the contrary, whether it has only reinforced a patronising culture of victimhood that is detrimental to British Muslims. Dangerously, such a culture of victimhood can fall prey to reactionary Islamists who wish to make a case for the establishment of totalitarian societies premised upon non-negotiable divine laws. Between the 'covenant of security' and long-standing British tolerance for radicalism are the dangers posed by shaping fringe views into absolute truths.

What some have termed the 'Islamophobia industry' is double faced. On one side are anti-Muslim bigots and the racist far right who blame Muslims for all of society's malaises. On the other side are reactionary Islamists and a section of the reactionary left who have exploited real and imagined Muslim grievances for their own political reasons and vested interests. In today's very delicate and fractured geopolitical context, we should all be very reluctant of mainstreaming either of these two sides.

While there is much to be applauded about discussing anti-Muslim prejudice and misguided counter-terrorism measures, actively endorsing a reactionary Islamist organisation and presenting it as representative of Muslim voices is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.

The University of Bath's promotion of CAGE as a 'human rights champion' can hardly be taken seriously. Even Lord Carlile QC (the former independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation in the UK) raised serious concerns about the group. People working or volunteering for CAGE have a record of failing to condemn female genital mutilation and the stoning to death of women for adulterous behaviour, openly endorsing jihad at Hizb ut-Tahrir rallies, associating with Moussa Zemmouri (a man with close links to jihadists) and massaging the history of Anwar al-Awlaki, a key inspirational figure behind numerous terrorist attacks and a strong believer that non-Muslims should never be trusted.

In June this year, the University of Bath welcomed CAGE at a conference entitled 'Understanding Conflict'. CAGE's work was defined 'invaluable' by American author and journalist Max Blumenthal, while Professor Deepa Kumar (Rutgers University) argued that ex-Muslims should better be defined 'New McCarthyites'. Dissent is certainly a key component of any democratic society but we should be very wary of the ways in which it can easily take the shape of propaganda campaigns.

Although academics should encourage a diverse range of views to be expressed on campus, there must to be limits to the cultural relativism propounded by a section of social scientists, who often mask politics and ideology under the guise of quasi-academic scholarship. Academic tolerance toward a reactionary Islamist organisation is all too ironic given how quickly British scholars acted in driving Professor Tim Hunt, a Nobel Laureate, out of his job at University College London for a sexist comment. Similarly, academics joined forces to demand that Dr Bob Lambert, a counter-terrorism lecturer at London Metropolitan University and St Andrews University, be sacked for conducting controversial, state-endorsed activities as part of his previous work in an elite secret police unit.

The encroachment of reactionary Islamism within British academic circles is set to reach a new high in October, when Glasgow will host a 'landmark summit to examine the scale of prejudice faced by the country's Muslims' at which academics from Edinburgh and Newcastle Universities are expected to share a platform with CAGE's Director Moazzam Begg. The conference is organised by Amina Muslim Women's Resource Centre, a well-respected group providing services to Muslim women, challenging stereotypes and opposing violence.

It is unclear what value CAGE can add to understanding and solving specific problems of discrimination in Scotland. It is even less clear when exactly CAGE became a defender of women rights, especially in light of Asif Qureshi's evasive answers about stoning adulterous women to death and female genital mutilation.

Mainstreaming reactionary Islamists to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry is as absurd as allying with anti-Muslim bigots to challenge reactionary Islamism. There are moderate, sensible Muslim organisations, for example Dialogue Society, which are equally concerned about anti-Muslim sentiments in the West and which channel their efforts through laudable initiatives aimed at fostering interfaith dialogue and intercultural unity. These are organisations that have a long-standing record of engaging with a wide section of the general public across the ethnic and religious (including non-religious) spectra and which possess the credibility and the intellectual tools to challenge Muslim intolerance without, at the same time, fuelling intercommunity tensions.

It is extremely naïve of anti-racist academics and organisations in the West to believe that they will reduce intolerance against Muslims by siding with the most reactionary elements of the Muslim community. These are unrepresentative elements who are listened to only by a fringe section of the Muslim community. While their causes should not be too hastily dismissed, they certainly lack any credibility among the general public and, particularly, among those who hold anti-Muslim sentiments.

In a country, Scotland, where racist groups have not taken a foothold as they have in England, sharing a platform with reactionary Islamists is only going to play into the hands of both those who wish to extend the reach of anti-Muslim sentiments and those who want to fuel anti-Western rhetoric. This is going to be a major faux pas that can severely tarnish the reputation of any serious academic.

There are areas of concern among Scottish Muslims – and these require a concerted effort from all sections of the public. Equally, discussions on such crucial topics must be based on sound arguments and evidence rather than ideology, politics and emotions.

After the National Union of Students made the questionable decision of backing up CAGE and of strengthening such ties with a series of upcoming anti-counter terrorism events, it is crucial that universities support Muslim human rights through genuinely open-minded organisations that aim to bring communities together, rather than creating further social and cultural rifts. CAGE and its affiliates have every right to express their views, as long as such views fall within the remits of the law, but the academic enterprise should rest upon rigorous scholarship and should remain entirely free from the interference of reactionary politics.

Stefano Bonino is a Lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University. He has conducted extensive research on the impact of counter-terrorism measures on British Muslims and on issues around identity, integration and community cohesion. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

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