God’s People Amidst All of God’s People:
    Ecumenism and the Challenge of Religious and Cultural Plurality

  Thomas Michel, S.J.  


I didn’t choose the title of my talk today, but I am nevertheless very happy with the choice made by the organizers of ACTS. The title would appear to be taken from the first Chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, vv. 11-15.

God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning. Let us, then, who were the first to hope in Christ, praise God’s glory! And you also became God’s people when you heard the true message, the Good News that brought you salvation. You believed in Christ, and God put his stamp of ownership on you by giving you the Holy Spirit he had promised. The Spirit is the guarantee that we shall receive what God has promised his people, and this assures us that God will give complete freedom to those who are his. Let us praise his glory! For this reason, ever since I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks to God for you (Eph 1: 11-15).

In this passage, Paul speaks four times of “God’s People,” and each time the term takes on ever broader significance. The first time, Paul refers to the Jews, chosen by God to be his people. Then Paul refers to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, who “became God’s people” in Baptism. Next it is Jews and Gentiles together who receive the Spirit as the guarantee of God’s promises to God’s people. Finally, Paul tells the Ephesians that he has heard both about their faith in Christ as well as their love for “all of God’s people,” that is, all those in the human family whom God has created and for whom God continually cares. Commenting on this verse, John Calvin succinctly noted: “Love properly ordered, begins with the saints and then flows to all others.”

Thus, I understand the title of my talk to refer to Christians in Asia, chosen to be God’s people, stamped God’s in baptism and blessed with the Spirit, living amidst all of God’s people, of whatever nationality, race, and religious faith. The challenge we face is double: one of ecumenism - building a real unity among us Christians - and building societies that respect cultural and religious pluralism.

     Christians in Ephesus and in modern Asia

It is interesting to note that it is in his Letter to the Ephesians that Paul develops this concept of “God’s people living amidst all God’s people.” In the time of Paul, the city of Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, was one of the most diverse and fascinating cities of the Roman Empire. Moreover, the way that Paul approached his mission in that city has much relevance for the Christian Churches in Asia today.

We think of Paul as a man on the move, restless, going to one town, setting up a small community of disciples, then hurrying off to the next town, preaching, forming a community of disciples and off to the next place. Then what happens when he reaches Ephesus? He stops his travels and remains in Ephesus for over two years. We might say that Ephesus is Paul’s Galilee, where he devotes his attention to the people and society around him and tries to see what the message and the Way of Christ can mean for the people he daily encounters.
The situation in which modern Christians in Asia live today has many similarities with that of Christians in Ephesus and other parts of the Roman Empire in the time of Paul. In fact, the reality of the Churches of Asia today appears to be much closer to that of the New Testament social and cultural situation than is that, for example, of medieval or modern Europe. Today in Asia, as in the Roman Empire, Christians form small communities who are geographically and culturally separated from one another by large numbers of the followers of other religions - Christians immersed in an Asian sea of Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus. Each Christian community today, as in the days of Paul, is culturally and linguistically distinct, but united to one another as a “communion of communities,” linked by faith in the One God, in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and by a common baptism. The New Testament writings address the same phenomenon in the ancient Roman world, small, scattered Christian communities living among a vast number of the followers of other religions. The inspired authors never seem to envision a model of medieval European societies where virtually everyone was baptized and nominally Christian, or a modern situation of post-Christian culture where millions were raised in Christian teaching but later abandoned or ceased to practice Christian faith.

In the time of Paul, Ephesus was a city of exceptional complexity. It was the fourth greatest city of the Roman Empire, surpassed only by Rome itself, Alexandria, and Corinth. Ephesus was a port on the busy Mediterranean Sea, which made it the location of an international mixing of peoples and cultures, a gateway between Asia and Europe, between north and south, east and west. However, Ephesus had a unique feature which made it even more cosmopolitan than the other great cities of the Roman empire. It was the site of Artemision, the Temple of the Great Mother Artemis, the most revered goddess in the Asian portions of the Roman Empire. This made Ephesus a holy city for the pagan Roman religion, a center of cult and pilgrimage. Artemis (or Diana, as she was called in Latin) was the Great Mother or in Greek, simply hê thea, “the Goddess.” The statues of Artemis, ranging from huge marble columns to millions of tiny figurines that modern archaeologists are still constantly finding in the region, are characterized by a depiction of the goddess with very many breasts, symbolizing that she is the Mother of all who is capable of nourishing and caring for each of her children.

Ephesus is a good take-off point for our discussion of the complex issue of how we as Christians are called upon to relate to people of other faiths. Moreover, St. Paul’s stay in Ephesus raises the whole question of interreligious dialogue for Christians. The Greek word dialogizomai, meaning “to discuss, dispute, deliberate,” or simply, “to engage in dialogue,” is used four times in the New Testament. It is significant that three of the occasions on which the Greek word for “dialogue” appears are found in Acts 19 in relation to Paul’s stay in Ephesus.

     Paul in Ephesus

The most striking occasion when this verb is used is when the author of Acts tells us that while in Ephesus Paul used to visit daily the σκωλα of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9) where he engaged in dialogue with the pagan philosophers. The Greek term skola indicates a Stoic philosophical academy of the traditional Roman religion. According to the Book of Acts, Paul went to Tyrannus academy every day for two years in order to engage in dialogue or discuss matters with the Stoic philosophers. Some early manuscripts add the phrase “from 11.00 until 4.00,” that is to say, “every day for two years Paul engaged in dialogue in the philosophical academy of Tyrannus between 11.00 in the morning and 4.00 in the afternoon.” We know that it was the custom in the Rome world for the philosophical academies to make available their facilities to interested parties during the hot midday hours. Anyone could come and discuss whatever topics they considered important. Paul also made use of this opportunity to discuss “the Way of the Lord” (Acts 19:9) and the “God’s Reign.” Moreover, as I will contend later, it was at Tyrannus’ skola where he was in dialogue with pagan thinkers and other Ephesians interested in religious questions that Paul learned to inculturate the Gospel message in ways that could be understood in the cultural environment of the Roman empire.

We shouldn’t think of Paul as one of these people who only talked and never listened. This wasn’t the custom in the philosophical academies of his time, and such arrogance wouldn’t have been tolerated there. Paul wasn’t singlemindedly out to convert the philosophers to Christianity but, as Acts says, he made good friends among pagans who, as far as we know, remained pagans and remained close friends of Paul. When the silversmiths of Ephesus began to demonstrate against Paul, it was the Asiarchs who, as it says in Acts, “had become friends of Paul” (Acts 19:31), who warned him, for his own safety, to stay out of the city center. The Asiarchs were officials of the pagan religion who had charge of putting on the Asian Games, the athletic events that were a part of the traditional religious rites.

The Asiarchs were not the only pagans who became friends of Paul’s. The city clerk, who was a devout worshiper of Artemis, took it upon himself to try to quell the silversmiths’ riot. He proclaimed his own belief in Artemis and simultaneously defended Paul and his companions, saying, “They have not said evil things about our Goddess (Acts 19:37).” In Ephesus as elsewhere, Paul never preached the Gospel by speaking badly or putting down anyone else’s religion.

     Dialogue in Asia today

Paul did not carry on his dialogue at Tyrannus’ skola in some kind of ivory tower. In Ephesus, fanatic Jews chased him out of the synagogue. Ephesus had violent devotees of Artemis who, left to themselves, might have killed Paul. It had those who, like the silversmiths, had a vested economic interest in the status quo of established religion. It had the mob, the great mass of disaffected and unemployed people who could be stirred up to violence even when, as it says in Acts, “most of them did not even know why they had come together” (Acts 19: 32).

Do some of these situations sound familiar? Just last month, a Jesuit companion of mine in India, Fr. Remis Kerketta, the principal of a high school in a tribal area, was shot down while he was riding a motorbike. Then the killers stole the motorbike and ran over his body to disguise their crime. It turns out that wealthy, high caste parties were opposed to the school because it was educating tribals. Elsewhere in Asia, in Indonesia, in the past few years, hundreds of churches have been burned and we all know about the ongoing strife in Ambon and the Moluccas. In a third country, a good friend of mine, a Filipino teaching in a wheelchair factory in Cambodia was killed when an unhappy student brought a grenade to the site which went off when my friend was trying to disarm him.

In citing these examples, I don’t want us to get into some kind of “persecuted Christians” way of thinking, that others are mistreating us because we are Christian. As we know, in recent years in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, as elsewhere in the world, Christians are not always innocent victims, but sometimes perpetrators of violence towards others. If we include Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Rwanda, and Chechnia, we must confess that it is probably Christians who are worldwide the greatest perpetrators of violence towards the followers of other religious groups.

Neither a persecution complex nor a breast-beating self-flagellation is useful for confronting what is a universal human problem, how do people move beyond the confines of their own group to live well with others. This is an especially urgent issue at a time when we seem to be living in an increased period of violence. There is more violence now than there used to be in Asia and, what is more disturbing, there is more communal violence, in which religion or, at least, religious affiliation, plays a role. People ask today, “How is dialogue possible in today’s social climate?” Christian brothers and sisters pointedly ask, “How can you engage in dialogue with people who are burning your churches, raping your sisters, massacring your villagers and killing your clergy?”

I guess the simplest answer would be to say, “You don’t.” You don’t dialogue with violent criminals, with people who have given themselves over to hatred, just as Paul did not dialogue with the fanatics and the murderers of Ephesus. Dialogue presumes good will and a certain level of openness to others. You don’t dialogue with an angry mob that often has forgotten the cause of its grievance. You try to avoid them, as Paul avoided the mob by staying out of the city center in Ephesus. When the streets of a city are filled with young men armed with heavy weapons, you don’t engage in dialogue. You gather your children and whatever possessions you can carry on your back and you flee the area. The tragedy and irony of so many conflicts, whether formerly in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the southern Philippines, East Timor, or now in Ambon, it is the reasonable and peace-loving people who flee their homes and become refugees, often abandoning their possessions to the looters and scavengers. In such conflicts, it is not the meek who inherit the land, but the violent.

On the other hand, it is essential that we always remember that the vast majority of our neighbors - Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, etc. - want, just as we do, peaceful, harmonious societies where people live together in mutual appreciation of each other’s dignity and acceptance of one another’s beliefs. They are not violent and they don’t hate. We do them an injustice when we say that Hindus are anti-Christian or that Muslims are violence-prone, just as we know that others do us an injustice when they say that Christians are only interested in making converts and money, or that Christians are not patriotic and fully involved in their societies. Generalizing about other groups - whether they be religious, ethnic, or national always does them an injustice and prevents us from analyzing situations to discover the root causes of conflicts and the interaction of various elements in times of tension.

In every society, there are some courageous individuals who refuse, even in times of crisis and conflict, to abandon the path of dialogue. During the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, when fighting often broke down on confessional lines of Christian against Muslim, there was a small number from both groups who refused to be polarized, but who continued to meet together, to study the problems together and to look towards the future to see what kind of new Lebanon they would like to see emerge from the ashes of war. Often their co-religionists mocked them, asking how they could be meeting and discussing matters with those who were killing their relatives. But when the war ended - and eventually it did end - it was precisely those Lebanese who had kept open the lines of communication and had kept their vision of a future rooted in a united Lebanon, who were in place and able to make a positive contribution to rebuilding the country after the war.
I mention this example, because I believe that it is a key role that needs to be played in every society in times of crisis and polarization. Many people have a wrong concept of dialogue, that it is something that is to be carried out when situations are easy. Some seem to regard dialogue as an interreligious tea-party where everyone says nice things but avoid difficult issues. The need, as I see it, is rather for peace-loving people, for God-loving people, of whatever religion, to keep the lines of communication open, to keep alive the vision of harmony and fellowship even - and especially - at moments when that vision seems most impossible and unrealistic.

     The need for a vision of the future

In Ephesus, why were the people in the academy of tyrannus interested in engaging in dialogue with Paul? I believe that it was because he was a man with a dream, a vision for the future that inflamed his soul. Even when his companions at the academy did not agree with Paul’s vision, they were intrigued by the power of his commitment and curious to discover the reason for his burning conviction. Paul’s theology did not remain an intellectual tapestry in his head but a plan for living that directed shaped his view of society.

I know that you are theology students and so I feel that I can make this suggestion to you. I remember what it was like when I was a theology student in the 1960s in the United States. In 1963, when I was 22 years old and a theology student in St. Louis, theology suddenly came alive for me. It became something that I felt could enrich my life, give me a direction for my actions, and show me how to make a contribution to society. Let me tell you how it happened.

The civil rights movement for racial equality for African-Americans had been going on for some years. Before that time, in many parts of the United States, African-Americans could not use the same restaurants, parks, or toilet facilities as other Americans. They could not send their children to the same schools, or sit in the same seats in buses or trains. There were marches, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns to politicians, sit-ins at bus stations, police headquarters, airports, and universities. African-Americans began the demonstrations, and other Americans joined in.

Last year, when Pope John Paul II visited the United States, he stopped to shake the hand of an elderly African-American woman, now over 80 years old, named Rosa Parks. Who is Rosa Parks, that the Pope went out of his way to greet respectfully? 40 years ago, she was a seamstress who sewed clothing. One day in 1955, after a long day of work, Rosa was tired, riding the bus home. A white woman got on the bus and told Rosa to give up her seat so that the white woman could sit down. Rosa refused and was charged with violating a local ordinance. The young pastor of a Baptist parish in the same city organized a boycott of the bus company and in this simple way the civil rights movement started. The movement began to grow and include various sections of society.

In 1963, I was in my second year of the study of theology. We weren’t much affected by the civil rights movement. My state had repealed its discriminatory laws, so the issue seemed distant from our daily lives. We were shut up most of the time in the seminary, studying the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, Christian philosophy, church history, systematic theology and the like. The world was going on and we knew about it, but we weren’t really part of it.

Then in March, 1963, all that changed. The young Baptist pastor who organized the bus boycott was Martin Luther King, and he called for a nationwide meeting to protest racial discrimination. Over 250,000 people gathered in Washington to hear him speak, and on that day Martin Luther King gave his famous, “I have a dream” speech. He said:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

For me, that was the moment when all my theology studies came together and stood up and spoke to me. I learned why I had been studying theology, I discovered where my life would be taking me. I found that I shared Dr. King’s vision and that God had a dream for me that God would plant in me at the right time. Can you imagine the excitement of that moment when theology is no longer simply something you find in books and memorize to get a good grade in the examination, but a tool by which you learn to respond to life, a well-spring of initiative, a road sign pointing the way to authentic action and involvement? My companions and I discovered that theology was not meant merely to teach us more about God, but theology, rather, was God teaching us more about what it means to be human.

In the years after I heard the speech of Martin Luther King, I used to ask God, “Where’s my dream?” Isn’t there a particular dream for me, some special vision that is so worthwhile, so deeply rooted in my faith and guiding my hope and enkindling my love that it is worth living for, that it’s worth dying for? But God didn’t give me a dream right off like that, but then God didn’t say no either. I completed my theological studies and worked for a time in a Catholic parish in the United States. Then came an invitation to teach English in a teachers’ college in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Would my dream be waiting for me in Indonesia? I didn’t know. I went to Indonesia and taught English, entered the Jesuits, a Catholic religious community, and was sent to Lebanon and Egypt to study Arabic and Islamic studies. On my return to Indonesia, I was involved day after day in Christian-Muslim relations, mainly teaching Islamic studies in Christian institutions or Christian studies in Islamic institutions.

Little by little over the years I believe that God has planted the seed of my dream in me and watered it with God’s grace. God has done this by guiding my work, my prayer, my friendships, my social involvement, and my theological thinking. Little by little, my commitment to Muslim-Christian dialogue has grown. God has challenged me and tested me by new situations, including the heartbreaking experience of each new outbreak of conflict that occurs between Christians and Muslims. Lebanon, Sudan, Bosnia, Philippines, Chechnia, Kosovo, Nigeria, and now my adopted nation of Indonesia.

Over the years, God has gradually made my personal dream clearer and clearer to me. It is a dream that is slightly different from that of Martin Luther King, because the dream of each is connected with the specific mission in life that God gives to each of us. What is my dream? I dream of a world where Muslims and Christians love one another, where they see each other as brothers and sisters who worship the one and same God and who together seek to do the will of God, who is merciful and compassionate, who is love and the source of all love. I have a dream in which Christians and Muslims are ready to work together for the good of all, to defend together the rights and the dignity of the oppressed and the marginalized - the poor, laborers, and women, a dream in which Muslims and Christians together try to build peace and disarmament, to overcome suspicion and resentment, and to find realistic, humane alternatives to violence and the use of power. I have a dream in which Muslims and Christians cooperate to build civil societies based on justice and participation and representative government that is responsive to the needs of the people, open societies in which all participants are able to make their own unique contributions to the common welfare. I have a dream in which Christians and Muslims can enrich each other by sharing their experiences of God, the challenges they face in seeking to do God’s will in modern society, the resources that each finds in their own religious tradition that give them strength and wisdom to live in fully authentic ways.

It’s a good dream, isn’t it? I can honestly say that everything I do, I do in order to make this dream a reality. And as I strive to make my dream a reality I feel that through it Christ is coming to live more fully in me, and me in him.

I’ve told you my dream, now let me ask you, “What is your dream?” Your dream might not have anything to do with Christian-Muslim relations. Maybe it has to do with a world where the status and work of women is regarded as having equal dignity and value as that of men. Maybe it has to do with communicating to your listeners a vision of the risen Lord that will touch and move them deeply. Maybe your dream is that of reformulating the Gospel in terms of a Confucian or Buddhist thought-world so that Christians can live the message of Christ without cultural barriers.

I don’t know what your personal dream is, but I know that it is not too soon for each of you to begin asking yourselves what it is that makes your theological studies come alive, what is it that gives life and passion to your prayer, what kind of world are you ready to give your life to build? Let me ask each of you a simple question: what is the deepest prayer in your life right now? What is the prayer that seems to arise from that silent inner core of your personality and makes you excited, that makes you want to do great things for God? Can you name it? If so, I have good news for you. You are not the one who planted that secret prayer in your heart; God did it. God planted that deepest desire in your heart and God is even now at work to water it and make it grow. That deepest prayer gives you a clue to understand your vision of the future that will direct and bring together all your thoughts and activities.
The philosopher Walter Wink says that the future is made by those who, first, have a vision of the future and, second, who live today as though that vision were already a reality. Those who don’t have a vision of the future become the passive victims of history, not its shapers. All the prophets had a dream. Isaiah saw a “new heavens and a new earth” (Is 66: 22), a holy mountain on which “the wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, the calf and the lion cub feed together” (Is 11: 6). Jesus had a dream of a world where all God’s people would repent of their sin and allow God to reign fully over their lives, and he was ready to give his life for that dream.

Paul had a dream of communicating Jesus’ Way to the Gentiles, a dream that both propelled his evangelizing travels and motivated his daily discussions with the pagan philosophers at Tyrannus’ school. It is not by accident that Paul’s two epistles most closely associated with the city of Ephesus - the letter to the Colossians and that to the Ephesians - are those in which Paul is finally able to express the message of Christ in the Gentile thought-world of the Roman Empire. No longer was the Way of Christ trapped in the Semitic world in which Jesus lived and died, but became inculturated in the categories and concerns of his pagan friends and neighbors. That theological vision later became imprisoned in Western and European categories, but now it is your task to liberate the message once again and make it vibrant in Asian cultures and societies.

You can’t carry out this task alone, any more than Paul could. Paul needed to discuss and debate with his neighbors in Ephesus. He needed to hear their objections and to take seriously their spiritual experiences. He needed to learn about the wonderful deeds that God lavishes so abundantly on all God’s people. He needed to broaden his understanding of God’s reign so that it included all those - including the scholars at Tyrannus’ academy, including the Asiarchs and the city clerk - who continued to follow their own religious path but in whose lives God’s presence and grace and love were by no means absent.

So at the conclusion of my talk, what is my prayer for you today, you theological students in Asia? It is fitting, isn’t it, that I take my hopes for you from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he asks God to grant six gifts to his fellow believers:
1) that the power of God’s Spirit enable the deepest desire of your hearts to grow strong,
2) that Christ come alive in your hearts through faith,
3) that your lives be grounded in love,
4) that you come to understand God’s love, how broad and all-encompassing it is, how long-lasting it is, how high and wonderful it is, and how deeply it resides at the core of your being,
5) that you actually experience Christ’s love, which goes so far beyond mere intellectual understanding,
and finally, nothing less than
6) that you be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph 3: 16-19).

We live in a part of the world which has been changing rapidly over the past decades. Some of the changes have been for the better, but others appear to have created new problems. The economic advances, despite the occasional set-backs, have been dramatic, although not all have profited to the same degree. For some, especially those on the bottom end of the economic scale, their economic situation has actually worsened.

Political freedom has made equally dramatic gains. When I first came to Asia in 1969, most countries were governed by dictatorial regimes of the right or left. Since then, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, and, most recently, Indonesia and East Timor, have carried out democratic transformations although, in the case of the last two, it is too soon to know if the movement towards democratic rule will succeed.

Strangely enough, even as the economic and political situation seems to have improved for many, interreligious and interconfessional relations seem to be more tense and even violent than in previous years. We have all read in the press of the many kinds of violence suffered by Christians at the hands of chauvinist Hindus in India, or of hundreds of Christian Churches burned down in Indonesia in recent years at the hands of those professing the religion of Islam. Others claim the manipulation of Buddhism by the governments of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and the actions of Christians in the southern Philippines and in parts of Indonesia have shown that we are not always innocent victims.

In this situation, many ask how real dialogue is possible. People ask, “How can you dialogue with people who are burning down your churches.
Looking at Paul’s activities in Ephesus, we see some surprising features of his relations to people of other faiths:

1. Paul didn’t remain in a Christian ghetto, but went daily to a pagan philosophical school
2. Dialogue, discussion, and dispute were an integral part of Paul’s dispute.
3. He didn’t remain aloof but made good friends with committed followers of other religions.
4. He was ready to accept their advice and their assistance in practical matters.
5. He did not speak badly about the revered elements of other’s religions.
6. He learned from them and learned the way to inculturate the Gospel message.
7. He didn’t generalize.

The problem for us Xtns is one that seems to arise from a conflict of doctrine and experience.
We see, know, meet many people daily who appear to God working in their lives, encountering God, but they don’t seem interested in/mediated by Christ

How does God work in their lives? If all is grace, how does God’s grace operate...?
How does God save?
If others can get saved too, why be Christians? Wouldn’t it be easier being members of a majority?

If you are only concerned about the well-being of your own community, do not even the papgans do that? If your righteousness does not go beyond..., you will not enter...

Mission of Church
is mission of Christ.
Reconcile all humankind to God, to one another


Let experience challenge your conceptual formulation.
Don’t judge others by their worst examples. “Muslims want...”
Find a vision. Doing theology is a mission, not a profession.
Self-critical. Whatever we think about Gospel..., we are not better.
What is the specific contribution we make as Christians? forgiveness, recociliation



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