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Blessed be the people of Egypt
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 01 - 2009

Copt or Muslim? Dina Ezzat declines an answer
It was under exceptionally tight security measures that the Coptic Church Tuesday night celebrated Christmas mass. Security officials admitted that the alert they applied this year was above average. "These are tough times and we want no headaches," said one.
It was for more than one reason that security measures were intensified this year. The most obvious, though not the most pressing, is related to developments in Gaza. Security officials are well aware of fears within some sections of the Coptic community that churches might be subjected to some "unfriendly" demonstrations.
"This is very sad. Some people keep suggesting that we, as Copts, are happy to see the disaster in Gaza just because it targets Hamas, a movement we are supposed to dislike as we are supposed to hate all forms of political Islam," commented Raafat, an Egyptian Copt, as he left the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya a few days ago. "Well, yes, we do not like Hamas and we do not like the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic groups that tend to perceive Copts as lesser citizens but we do not like to see the Israelis doing this to the Palestinians either," said Raafat.
Developments in Gaza, however serious, remain a very small part of much larger security concerns. It is civilian clashes about which the state is most worried, prompted at times by the mere presence of economically frustrated and religiously agitated Copts and Muslims in the same place.
This worry is perfectly legitimate, argues Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights. According to Bahgat and other concerned observers, 2008 was an alarming year in terms of sectarian strife. It was marked by dramatic cases of confrontation, most famously at Abu Fana Monastery in May when Coptic monks were directly involved in violent clashes for the first time in 35 years of on-and-off sectarianism. It was also a year in which clashes over the construction of churches, romances across religious divides and the exercise of religious freedom proved a daily headache for state and society alike.
"Throughout the year we had to deal with an alarming increase of tension [between Copts and Muslims]," Bahgat notes, citing three reports issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights monitoring relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. The increase of tension, the reports warned, "was coupled with an increased frequency of anti- Coptic sentiments". Such sentiments "and behaviour", the reports went on, "assumed a wider geographic scope". "Cases of sectarianism used to be more or less confined to certain neighbourhoods and villages in Upper Egypt, Alexandria and parts of Cairo. Today we are talking about a nationwide phenomenon. From Upper Egypt to the Delta and beyond sectarianism is clearly monitored and is not sufficiently or efficiently confronted," says Bahgat.
Sectarianism is not just about the kinds of violent clashes that in 2008 left one Copt and a Muslim dead. It is also about explicit and implicit tendencies to religious isolationism, a retrenchment both religions are experiencing and which has steadily redefined the role of both the Church and Al-Azhar. Copts and Muslims both acknowledge the growing role of the church and the mosque in their daily lives. This role, they say, is not just about religious practice but also about the daily conduct of their lives, physical protection included.
In the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya, in the Delta governorate of Mansoura and in the once cosmopolitan coastal city of Alexandria individuals say that when it comes to clashes with citizens of the "other" faith, it is to clergymen and to the Coptic or Muslim community, not the state, they resort.
Certainly this was the sentiment that seemed to predominate last summer when a group of Muslims living in a near-by village and Coptic monks clashed over the expansion of the Abu Fana monastery.
"When we first came under fire from nearby villagers we called up the police forces. It was hours before they arrived. We were under fire. Our church was being burnt. We had to react," said one of the Abu Fana monks. "It is sad for me to say it but there was only one reason for the delay. The attack on the monastery did not matter much to security officials who are exclusively Muslim. We don't want to further exacerbate sensitivities and we don't want any more problems."
Tellingly, similar complaints were voiced by the residents of Aarab Houre, the small village in the vicinity of the monastery. "They allow them [the monks] to expand and take up ever more land but they come and attack our mosques and round up Muslim young men under all sorts of pretexts," said one villager who declined to identify himself. "They call us terrorists and they let the Copts do whatever they want. Of course, it is because the Copts have the support of the West and because the government does not fear God but fears the US," he added.
Security officers and officials in Minya declined to comment on the exchange of accusations. Elsewhere, security officers say that they are not bothered much by such accusations of bias.
"Every police officer is now perceived in a negative light. The ones accused of being biased are lucky. At least they are not denounced as violators of human rights as many of us are," commented one state-security officer. The state, he insists, is not taking sides though there might be a few instances of bias here and there "among both Copts and Muslims".
"There are school teachers and university professors who exercise religious bias. Some police officers do too and it is on both sides [Copts and Muslims] but obviously because there are more Muslims than Copts it seems more of an Islamic than a Coptic practice."
The census is a very sensitive issue for both Copts and Muslims, for the Church and Al-Azhar and above all for the state. State figures suggest that of the around 80 million Egyptians there are some six to seven per cent Copts. The Church suggests double this figure while radical Islamic organisations claim Copts account for as little as four per cent of the total.
According to some independent sources, in 1995 Copts formed an estimated 15 per cent of Egypt's population. Their declining proportion of the total is not an exclusively Egyptian phenomenon but that applies to Christian communities across the Arab world. And when all is said and done, Egypt shows the least disturbing signs of mass Christian migration.
Foreign diplomats in Egypt and Egyptian diplomats overseas acknowledge an increasing trend among Copts to leave the country, mostly for Australia and the US.
"I don't believe we have much room left here. It is very sad but this is the way things are," says Nevine, a mother of three and wife of a businessman. In her early 40s, she has many complaints about how she has been treated by society. "I have ceased to be an Egyptian woman. Now I am a Copt. When I go to the doctor I am a Copt; if I have paper- work to get done at some government office I am a Copt and when I get in the women's carriage on the Metro I am a Copt. And as a Copt, more often than not, I am the unwanted other. It was not always that way."
When Nevine takes her children to play on Friday at a Heliopolis club she always feels tense. "My two boys tend to play together. It is my daughter who breaks my heart when she comes with a sad face and says that nobody wants to play with her because her name is Mary."
Nevine is considering emigrating to Australia. Among the reasons, she says, are worries not just over social signs of discrimination but for the future. "I pray that President Hosni Mubarak will have a long life. My fear is that the next president, especially if he has an Islamist -- not Muslim -- background will have less sympathy for Copts." When Nevine was growing up she faced no such problems. She had Muslim and Coptic friends and religion "was never an issue".
"We did not talk about it. It belonged elsewhere," she says.
Shahine, an Egyptian civil servant in his early 50s, agrees that religion was not something that people talked about when he was young.
"But that was wrong," he says. "Religion is who we really are and there is no way we can deny it."
He does not encourage his children to play with Coptic classmates or neighbours.
"I am not telling them that they have to argue with them or not talk with them but I prefer that they do not get too close to them. They can say hello when they see them in the morning but they cannot go play with them in their houses or eat from their food."
Shahine denies that his insistence on such segregation smacks of sectarianism. "No, no. I have nothing against Copts but I just do not want my children to be subjected to matters related to the Coptic creed, things like God had a son and the Virgin Mary is the mother of God. There are influences that we have to avoid right from the beginning."
In his book Copts and Liberalism, dedicated to his daughter Mary "and other migrant birds", and his son Mina "who is dying to fly away", Kamal Ghobrial sheds light on the growing concerns that drive some Copts to consider emigration. The Islamicisation of society, he argues, could lead to demands that Copts may not wish to put up with even if they do not directly counter religious freedoms.
"If the Muslim Brotherhood were to rule would they or wouldn't they force my wife and my daughter to wear the veil," asks Ghobrial.
Milad Hannah, intellectual and university professor, is not perturbed by the stories of Nevine and Shahine.
"They are not representative -- not really," he argues. "As a Copt I have lived all my life well-liked by my Muslim and Coptic co-workers and neighbours. As a Copt I have my status in a society where 30 per cent of the businessmen, the most influential and economically powerful, are Copts, and where 20 per cent of university professors and medical doctors and engineers are Copts."
Hannah is not arguing against Coptic emigration. Nor is he denying that the increasing entrenchment of Islamism, in social discourse and in the state, is to blame. But he also points out that it is easier for Egyptian Copts to emigrate than it is for their Muslim countrymen, "and of course the limits Copts find are placed on professional promotion, especially within certain careers" means leaving for foreign shores more tempting.
"But it is wrong and unfair to suggest that Copts are being forced out of Egypt. Yes, maybe some do not feel comfortable over their current status or fear for their future and that of their children but this is not to say that Copts are fleeing the country."
For Hannah, the "unfairness" Copts face -- he wishes to avoid the word discrimination -- is neither systematic nor inevitable.
"Christianity has been in Egypt for 19 centuries and Islam has been here for 14 centuries and for the best part of these 15 centuries Egyptian Muslims and Copts co-existed peacefully, much more peacefully than in many other states," Hannah says. And religious-based discrimination, he adds, is something that Muslims face in some countries and Christians face in other countries. "In Egypt it remains in a relatively mild form."
Hannah acknowledges that despite his academic record "as a Copt" he was never promoted to the position of dean.
"But so what. I know that this is related to my religion but I also know that this does not make me a second class citizen." He adds that as a Copt he is "a well-acknowledged university professor who is granted a regular opinion article in no other than the state's most prominent daily, Al-Ahram ".
For Hannah, as for others like him, the overall picture is satisfactory despite some signs of frustration.
One focus of that frustration are the restrictions placed on the building or restoration of churches.
"Why can a Muslim turn any piece of land that he owns into a mosque when I cannot do the same for a church? I am also a citizen, supposedly an equal citizen, but as a priest if I have to fix a bathroom in my church I need to notify the governorate. It used to be even worse. Before we had to get a presidential approval," complains one village priest from the Upper Egyptian governorate of Assiut.
Regulations imposed on the construction of churches are part of Egypt's Ottoman legacy. They were left unchallenged until 2004 -- practically on the eve of the 2005 presidential elections -- when permit requirements for the reconstruction of churches were removed and governors, rather than the president, were given the authority to authorise reconstruction notifications.
"It is still unfair. As a citizen I have every right to be treated according to the same rules as my fellow citizens. I am not asking for a preferential treatment. I am asking for justice to be done," says Michael Mounir, a leading figure in the group commonly labelled "Expatriate Copts". Mounir, who has been criticised by the state, Islamists, most Muslims and some Copts, says that he is determined to end this injustice.
Mounir makes no apologies for lobbying US Congress to pressure Egypt to introduce legal amendments stipulating that Muslims and Christians be treated identically when it comes to the building of mosques and churches. He takes responsibility for drafting the controversial bill 1303 that "calls on the Egyptian government to respect human rights and freedoms of religion and expression in Egypt". He sees nothing wrong with the text of the draft resolution still pending in Congress that argues that Copts "suffer from many forms of discrimination" including "difficulty in building and repairing churches".
The resolution, he insists, was not devised so as to apply economic pressure on the Egyptian government to adopt legal amendments. "This is not the point. The point is that the government needs to realise that Copts in and out of Egypt are not going to tolerate prolonged injustice and that it needs to end this injustice."
Mounir says that he has spoken with the Egyptian government and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) "at the highest level" over his work to induce "overdue" legislative amendments in relation to the construction and repair of churches yet the promises he has been receiving for over four years now have yet to be honoured. "We are still waiting on a draft law for the unified construction code for mosques and churches to be presented to parliament."
A member of the NDP, speaking on condition of anonymity, argues that the time is not ripe for such legislation. "There are too many Islamist currents in parliament and in society. If we present it now it will backfire and could aggravate anti-Coptic sentiment."
Of the 452 members of the Egyptian parliament 80 directly subscribe to Muslim Brotherhood. But according to one Leftist Muslim MP, "radical Islamist sentiment goes way beyond the members of the Muslim Brotherhood into the heart of the NDP."
"Every time we discuss women's rights there is outrage from the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood alike over the adoption of any laws that might be remotely interpreted, by the most radical of Muslim scholars, as somehow incompatible with Islamic Sharia," he says.
He cites the debate in parliament over criminalising female genital mutilation as a prime example of the "radical spirit within parliament".
"And when [Minister of Culture] Farouk Hosni made some passing remarks on the wide-scale taking of the veil by Egyptian women he was denounced by many Muslim members, including some senior ministers. We are not just talking about the Muslim Brotherhood."
Hamdi Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood MP, has no qualms about applying different rules to the construction of churches and mosques. "There are more Muslims than Copts," he argues, "and clearly there are enough churches and not enough mosques. We see Muslims praying on the pavements next to the mosques but we see empty chairs in churches."
Any problems related to Coptic-Muslim relations cannot, Hassan argues, be solved by measures that will worsen the situation. "The issue is not one of building churches. It is one of a sense of victimisation that we all share, Muslims and Copts alike, due to the state's monopoly of power and resources."
According to Hassan, Copts must continue to accept what they have long accommodated: they are a numerical minority who are not eligible to stand for the presidency. "We are not interfering with freedom of worship or civil rights but there cannot be equal numbers of churches and mosques or a Coptic president in a country where over 94 per cent of the population is Muslim."
But for many Copts their grievances are not just about the number of churches or access to the presidency. They also include the right of Copts who converted to Islam to revert to their original religious status if they so wish.
"I admit that I converted to get a divorce but I now want to go back to my family and be accepted again in my own society," said one Coptic man speaking on condition of anonymity. He adds that he does not want his children to have to convert to Islam in order to follow their father's religion, as Egyptian law requires. The only way out for him is to reclaim his Christian religion officially.
According to Sharia Muslims are not allowed to convert. State officials and Muslim scholars complain that Islamic laws cannot be bent to fit the wishes of some "to use Islam" as an exit from Coptic restrictions on personal status matters. "Let the Coptic Church solve this problem," said one justice official who asked for his name to be withheld.
The Coptic Church, however, cannot do much to help those Muslims, however few, who wish to convert to Christianity. "I decided to be Christian. I know it is shocking but I did want to be Christian. Not to marry a Christian but just to be a Christian," said one middle-aged woman who asked for her identity to be withheld. Abandoned by her family, she has taken refuge at the house of a Christian family but has a serious legal problem -- on paper she remains, and will always be, a Muslim.
"Now why can Copts, Christians in general, convert to Islam when Muslims cannot convert to Christianity? What does that say about the way the state perceives Christianity? I will tell you. It says that for the state Christianity is simply not a religion," comments one priest.
The right of Muslims to promote Islam within the Coptic community is legally accepted even if it has not, especially in recent years, been encouraged by the state. But the right of Christians to promote their religion among Muslims is strictly prohibited.
Other grievances include political representation, access to senior jobs, especially in areas of state security and intelligence, the representation of Christians and Christianity in school curricula and state-run media and even religious holidays.
In 2004 Coptic Christmas was upgraded from a Coptic to a national holiday. Around the same time Christmas mass began to be broadcast on state-run TV, though not on the main channel that televises Friday prayers every week. Coptic Christmas remains the only feast on the Coptic calendar to be a national holiday.
Arabic textbooks present a Muslim, not a Muslim-Coptic society. "Take, for example, the Quranic texts used in Arabic language teaching books. Some of the verses included in the curricula are quite anti-Christian," comments Gamal Asaad, an advocate of Christian-Muslim unity in the face of government coercion.
Unlike some other Christian figures, including Father Thomas who recently gave a controversial lecture in the US calling for the elimination of all Quranic texts from Arabic language curricula, Asaad is not opposed to the use of Quran to teach Arabic linguistics. "It just has to be done in a way that is sensitive to the Christian student so that he [or she] does not feel the subject of discrimination."
Such adjustments, argues Mounir, are unlikely to occur without better representation of Copts in parliament. "If legislative elections are conducted on the basis of the slate system then enough Copts would find their way to parliament and be in a position to bring about this and other required changes," argues Mounir.
Some have suggested a "quota" be allocated to Coptic parliamentarians, though others argue this could serve to underline sectarian divisions within society.
"We should not be acting in a way that will ultimately lead to widening divisions," warns Asaad.
Haitham Abu Zeid, executive director of the still to be authorised Al-Wasat Party, believes it is "unimportant to talk about state or other forms of legislative elections when we all, Muslims and Copts alike, know that elections are rigged by the government."
"Whoever thinks that the government will have a hard time finding a few Copts to follow its agenda is mistaken. There are a host of citizens from all backgrounds and beliefs that have sold out."
Abu Zeid, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, does not buy into the theory that fear of the "possible rule of the Brotherhood" is driving Copts to emigrate or being used as "a pretext" by the Coptic Church to announce its support for the succession of Gamal Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood, he says, "will not ascend to power for the simple reason they do not have the kind of support they claim to have."
And, "if they do, their discrimination will not be restricted to Copts."
For Abu Zeid, as for Asaad, the issue is one of eliminating injustice in general and of securing democracy.
Zeinab Radwan, deputy speaker of Egyptian parliament, argues that legislation and representation alone, even if state-imposed, are no panacea for religious tolerance. "Relations within society are about people and laws. You need to get citizens to fully subscribe to the concept of tolerance, in practice as in theory, for any laws to be effective."
The trouble, says Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights, is that the "exercise of discrimination from Muslims to Copts or the other way round -- although it is more from Muslims towards Copts -- has become so deeply rooted that it takes courage even to admit to its extent, let alone begin working to change it".
Ramez, an Alexandrian taxi driver, complains that the cross he hangs on his rear view mirror "has put him in many difficulties". Traffic police, he says, stop him "for no reason".
"The officer will give me a ticket for breaking the speed limit -- when I wasn't -- and look at the cross in my car in a way that is obviously hostile."
Ramez is convinced that nobody in the Alexandria Traffic department issues directives to "harass Copts" and that not every Muslim traffic officer does it. "But if somebody feels like doing it he can," says Ramez.
Josephine -- not her real name -- complains about continuous and unjustified security harassment and threats. She attributes this gender harassment to no other reason than her Coptic faith.
Hassan, a bearded Muslim taxi driver in Alexandria, voices similar complaints about alleged harassment, this time over "Islamism". Samira -- not her real name -- an unveiled Muslim teacher, working in a high school in Tanta, Lower Egypt, complains that she has been subjected to pressure from the school administration to take the veil or be investigated over "inappropriate behaviour" with her male students.
Hassan agrees that tolerance has been steadily eroded until it is now a rare commodity. But the process, he argues, is not just related to the Islamicisation of society kick-started after "Gulf Islamic values" began to be imported to Egypt when Egyptians who had worked in Gulf countries starting in the mid-1970s began to return home. Like Assad, Abu Zeid and others, Hassan believes the state itself is promoting intolerance in an attempt to stymie social solidarity in the face of injustice.
"The state knows very well what it has to do to combat sectarianism," says Hassan. In 1972 a state-appointed committee was entrusted with examining a case of sectarian strife prompted essentially by a mixed marriage and produced "a set of recommendations that could have contained the problem right at the beginning".
"But nothing was done then and not enough is being done now."
Moukhles Qotb, secretary-general of the state- affiliated Egyptian Council for Human Rights, argues that the regime is less culpable and is trying, albeit in limited ways, to tackle the problem.
"We have seen some adjustments in school curricula and in the discourse of the [state-run] media. But this is not an easy task. It is a problem that developed over the years and will take time to resolve."
Nothing could have supported Qotb's argument better than a decree issued late last summer by the Doctors' Syndicate banning organ transplants between Muslims and Copts. Appeals by civil society organisations failed to reverse the decree as head of the Doctors' Syndicate, Hamdi Hassan, insisted society would not tolerate organ donations across religious boundaries.
It is common to blame the growth of sectarianism on president Anwar El-Sadat's promotion of political Islam as a counterweight to left-wing and Marxist influence in post-Nasser Egypt. The mid- 1970s are often referred to as the starting point of the decline in national unity between Muslims and Copts, the so-called "Unity of the Cross and the Crescent".
It is an analysis that Tarek El-Beshri criticises as overly simplistic in his book Copts and Muslims within Civil Society. He references incidents that date back to the early years of Ottoman rule in Egypt and which betray deliberate or indeliberate discrimination: Copts were not immediately included by Mohamed Ali in the early phases of the formation of the army or in the earliest groups of students sent on academic missions overseas. However, as El-Beshri notes, they were always part of the administration of the state, especially in the financial sphere. And as many pro-unity advocates like to preach, they stood side by side with Muslims in the fight against the British occupation of Egypt, the 1919 Revolution being cited as the ultimate example of this unity.
El-Beshri argues that throughout the modern history of Egypt there were moments when national unity was challenged but it ultimately survived because Copts and Muslims realised they shared a common fate as Egyptians. It is the stand taken last summer, against a backdrop of sectarian strife, by the movie Hassan and Morcos, starring Omar Sharif and Adel Imam.
But the argument is daily contested, not just by sectarian incidents but by the discourse of the religious establishments. According to Magdi Girgis, a historian at the American University in Cairo, the Church, and to a lesser degree Al-Azhar, are pulling in the direction of religious polarisation.
"The Church, rather than the state, is perceived by many Copts as their ultimate representative in civil as much as religious matters. Muslims have recourse to Islamic establishments, though it is used to a lesser degree given the perception that the Egyptian state is itself Islamic. Throughout Egyptian history, the religious representation of citizens has been a precursor of sectarianism."
Copts and Muslims are not short on criticism, always on an off the record basis, of the role of Pope Shenouda in this state of affairs. They are also critical of the Gulf influences exercised over leading Islamic scholars and their constituencies. Yet the state has failed to live up to the expectations of either Copts or Muslims, creating a vacuum that it was inevitable that religious institutions would seek to fill.
The implications for society are serious. For every mosque there has to be an opposing church and if a church is built there has to be a bigger mosque. For every TV channel that promotes Islamic teachings there must be a Christian TV channel, no matter how big the cost or minimal the returns.
Any Muslim enterprise in Upper Egypt is now perceived by the Coptic community there as an attempt to flank the predominantly Christian villages in Upper Egypt to deny the Copts a stronghold. And every Coptic enterprise, especially if it involves Naguib Sawiris, caricatured by many as the "Coptic" business tycoon par excellence, is automatically viewed with suspicion as part of some conspiracy to establish Egypt as a Coptic zone.
The broadcast of OnTV channel, which advertises itself as a "strictly Egyptian TV channel" but which carries more Coptic features than any other satellite channel except for the clearly Coptic ones like Hayat, has raised many eyebrows.
OnTV is owned and run by Copts. But, says one employee, being an Egyptian channel owned by Copts does not mean that it is trying to target Muslims. "Rather the opposite. We have no intention of targeting anyone. We just want to say that Egypt is about both Muslims and Copts and not just Muslims."
"This is what we are, Muslims and Copts, though we are also individuals," says Ramzi, a Copt in his early 40s. Ramzi got married this year. But it took him a long time to get over his earlier romance with Riham, a Muslim girl.
The Ramzi and Riham story started in high school. "Eventually we had to face reality. We were from different faiths. We could fall in love but we couldn't get married. But when I fell in love with her and when she fell in love with me we did not think about religion -- not at all."
The common ground shared by Muslims and Christians -- be they Copts, Catholics or Protestants -- is not small. In Upper Egypt, where villages are at times strictly segregated between Copts and Muslims, the boundaries are crossed most often when Muslims and Christians attend the same moulids.
"The Virgin Mary is for all of us. I came to ask her to help me get a baby. I lit a candle and I will light a dozen candles when I get pregnant," said Amal, a veiled Muslim woman, who attended the moulid of the Virgin Mary in Assiut last August.
Regular moulid -goers say that every Muslim and Coptic moulid attracts a mixed audience. And as Muslim and Coptic MPs argue when draft bills related to taxes or healthcare are debated, Muslims and Copts stand together in the face of the government.
It is true that the Muslims and Christians that Naeim Sabri portrays in his novels Shubra and The Diaries of an Old Child, who celebrated Ramadan Iftar and Christmas Eve together, would seem anachronistic today. Far more compatible with today's atmosphere is the image conjured by Sayed Mekkawi in Swansong of a group of street kids running after a Coptic child to erase the cross tattooed on his wrist.
Yet it is equally true that when demonstrators took to the streets in several Egyptian governorates over the past few days Muslims and Copts stood side by side.
Youssef Ghali, the minister of finance, imposes taxes that "harm" both Muslims and Copts. Habib El-Adli, the minister of interior, applies security measures that impinge on Muslims and Copts alike.
"I am Egyptian: Christian or Muslim, I am Egyptian," is the title of a regular musical performance given by Ehab Abdu at Al-Sawy Cultural Wheel. By mixing Sufi Muslim singing and Christian hymns Abdu says he is promoting the thing all Egyptians need to promote -- national unity of all Egyptians.

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