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Myanmar Matters: Protect The Rohingya, Protect Us All

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By Jamila Hanan

The plight of the Rohingya, you must have heard about it by now: one million people living in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in the state of Arakan (renamed Rakhine) on the coastline bordering Bangladesh. Denied their right to citizenship by a law passed in 1982, the Rohingya are the world’s most persecuted minority. There are at least another one million living in exile, many of whom have shocking stories to tell of how they escaped the persecution, now dreaming of one day returning to their homeland, but they know it’s a far off dream.

I was first introduced to their catastrophe in July 2012. It was just one call from a concerned activist friend travelling in that area that obliged me to look. What I found to be happening was so horrific, and so hidden, that I felt compelled to do something.

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In my naivety, I started to frantically call on media and human rights organisations to urgently report and act. I was shocked that such atrocities could be happening, in this day and age, and no one seemed to know about it. I thought that once the media got hold of the story it would be big news, and people would come rushing to help. I thought that the United Nations would be compelled to protect the Rohingya when they had received information about the unfolding genocide. How wrong I was.

Much has happened since then. After the initial attacks where thousands were systematically rounded up by the military and herded into internment camps, there was a second well co-ordinated attack in October 2012 that cleared much Rohingya land overnight. Villages were levelled to the ground, making way for new developments, in the region of Kyauk Phyu, Myanmar’s new economic development zone.

“There’s no oil in Burma, that’s why no-one will act,” I hear repeatedly complained on social media. This is wrong. The entire region in question was up for tender for oil and gas exploration. Hardly a country in the world wasn’t interested in winning contracts for their private sectors. In addition, a new oil gas pipeline was about to start pumping oil and gas from the coast where the Rohingya lived, to take it up to China, thus cutting out the need to carry it all around the Indochina Peninsula. A deep sea port was being built in Rakhine, to take in oil tankers from the Middle East.

This whole area of Rakhine is key to the future development plans of Myanmar, which is key to the development of the entire South East of Asia. What is happening now to the Rohingya must be seen in the context of what is happening in the light of economic developments. It cannot be dismissed as just coincidence that some of the final sanctions were lifted by the US and blacklist scrubbed, less than 2 days before the recent ‘clearance operation’ in the township of Maungdaw began.

Our recently launched campaign, #WeAreAllRohingyaNow, intends to cut through the religious narrative. For certain there are religious and ethnic tensions in Myanmar, but these have been allowed to foster, for military gain. The Rohingya are used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems: an irrational fear of Muslims is being used to rally the rest of the population in support of the military who offer security in the face of a changing world (hmmm.. remind you of anything happening anywhere else in the world maybe?). But ethnic tension is not the cause of the problems. What is driving the military-led persecution at this time, is the desire to redevelop this part of the land, and it is not just the Rohingya who are suffering, but also the local Rakhine people too, as land is grabbed and resources exploited, with little if anything returned to the people who live there. So long as public attention is kept firmly on driving the Rohingya out, exploitation by the military and their investors will go largely unnoticed.

Our campaign is going to be approaching those corporations who are investing in Myanmar, to ask them to face up to the responsibilities that come with the power that they hold. The United Nations will not act without permission from our politicians, yet our politicians are always constrained by economic interests. Multinational corporations hold more power than many of us realise, and they should use their powers for good. If they do not, then we, as consumers, should hold these organisations to account.

One multinational corporation that has intentions to set up its central office for South East Asia is Unilever, the third largest consumer goods company in the world. They have already invested over half a billion dollars in Myanmar. They profess to be forward-thinking in their stance as an ethical company, under the leadership of their CEO Paul Polman, who actually encourages consumers to call on big businesses to do more, and to withhold our spending from them if they do not.

For this reason, #WeAreAllRohingyaNow reached out to Paul Polman, with an open letter, calling on Unilever to take a stand for the rights of the Rohingya. Due to pressure from the campaign, Unilever did take a big step forward, in tweeting their support for the Rohingya and adding their company’s name to a letter regarding the Rohingya that was addressed to the United Nations and signed by Paul Polman in December. However, we are still awaiting their reply to our own letter asking them about their responsibilities in regards to the Rohingya and their investments in Myanmar.

We believe that large corporations should be doing much more to protect the Rohingya. It is simply not an option for these organisations to be investing in Myanmar, in the face of an unfolding genocide, whilst remaining silent. In addition, they should not be passing the buck to the United Nations, who we all know are powerless due to governmental business constraints. It is they themselves who hold the leverage with the Myanmar military to bring about a satisfactory solution for the Rohingya: the restoration of their citizenship.

Our campaign is not asking companies to pull out of Myanmar, but we are asking them to act in the interest of human rights, and to stop this genocide. We have the capability to organise large scale actions, such as boycotts, but we would much rather keep a positive relationship with businesses as much as possible. This is a genuine outreach, to encourage corporations to start living up to their ethical responsibilities, and to do far more than issue statements of concern, but to act.

I encourage everyone reading to please support us in our campaign. By standing for the rights of the Rohingya, we are in fact standing for the rights of Muslims and all persecuted minorities across the world. If we ignore what is happening today and do nothing, tomorrow it is no exaggeration to say that this could actually be you suffering similar persecutions.

Our campaign has a ground breaking strategy that is already reaping results; it is well organised and evolving. We are sending out action alerts to everyone that registers, via email and Twitter direct message, which are simple steps anyone can take in their own time, from anywhere with an internet connection, that will bring added power to this campaign. Please take a moment to register to join us, and be a part of this exciting new movement for change: bit.do/rohingyaregister

@jamilahanan jamilahanan1@gmail.com Human rights activist, Jamila Hanan, based in the UK, is spearheading the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign.

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  1. Avatar

    safiya

    May 23, 2017 at 4:19 PM

    The chinese dont care dear sister. Have you ever met a Tibetian? It should remind us why we are bemoaning the Rohingya problem, bcoz we looked the other way for 50 years when the Tibetians were evicted for One China’s chowmein vision.If I care for the Palestinians and do BDS, I boycott chinese goods too,for I care about Tibetians,even if they are not muslim.For being a silent witness to any injustice,creates the risk of inviting that injustice upon ourselves.

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#Current Affairs

Will The Real Aya Sofia Please Stand Up?

They say history is the biography of great men and women. Well, history is also the story of great buildings. This case is rarely more painfully obvious than when it comes to identity of The Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofia (“the Holy Wisdom”).

Church, Mosque, Museum: the Aya Sofia has lived under many guises over the years and each transformation came hand-in-hand with momentous political change. This year, it was no different.

By reverting to the previous designation of Aya Sofia into a mosque, the Turkish courts have set off a firestorm of controversy across the world. It is understandable that faithful Christians would object. The sense of loss they must feel is the same feeling that many Muslims get when they see the Grand Mosque of Cordoba’s conversion into a cathedral. However, what is confusing is that some Muslims are also conflicted – or even downright hostile – to the idea of the Aya Sofia being used as a mosque.

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Why are they upset? Is there weight to their feeling that this was an act that was against the laws and spirit of Islam? How true is it that this was pure political theatre?

A summary of the arguments are detailed below as each point reveals a great deal about us as Muslims today and our current mentality:

The Vatican – a clear example of Museum and Church buildings in one

1. “It should just remain a museum…”

The Aya Sofia IS remaining a museum. The ruling states and the government echoes that it is a mosque and museum but, unfortunately, if you read the headlines you will be given the impression that the museum is being destroyed. This is not the case.

The world is full of buildings with dual functions. The White House is the seat of government and the residence of the President. The Vatican is a museum, a church and the home of the Pope. St Paul’s Cathedral is a tourist attraction as well as functioning church. If Muslims alone were somehow exempt from the ability to combine museum and mosque in one building, then that would be very strange indeed. Yet that is exactly what opponents of the mosque designation are saying.

What opponents for the reversion of the building are arguing for is not for the preservation of the museum – in fact, it will be more accessible than ever by becoming free and open till the late evening – but for the prevention of worship in a building that was built and intended for that very purpose.

2. “It was illegal to turn it into a mosque in the first place…”

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: many Muslims quote the example of Umar (R) and his treatment of the Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In fact, this is the number one excuse used by many so-called Muslim intellectuals who lazily have projected their own biases on to our pious predecessors. They say, not without a little pious sanctimony, that Umar (R) exemplified that Islam is not a triumphalist religion and – though he could have converted the church into a mosque – he chose not to.

For most of history, it was common practice that any conquering army gained full ownership of the conquered lands. Islamic law was actually quite progressive in this regard, stipulating that property in surrendered lands would remain with their owners and not the conquerors. It was only if a land was taken without surrender, according to Imam Al Qurtubi amongst others, should their properties be forfeit. Jerusalem surrendered and Damascus surrendered. Constantinople – despite multiple attempts requesting it to do so – did not. Therefore, Islamically and according to the norms of the time, the conversion of the Church into a mosque was legal.

This is highlighted by the case of a district of Constantinople called Psamatya (present day Koca Mustafa Pasha) whose residents surrendered to Muhammad Fatih separately. The area had the highest density of extant churches, since none were touched or taken over.

Muhammad Fatih and The Patriarch Genaddios discussing the patriarchate

3. “But it has been a museum for so long now, so why turn it back?”

Some sources say that they have found evidence of the Church being purchased by Muhammad Fatih with his own money. The evidence has yet to be verified by external sources although it is accepted by the Turkish authorities, but even if you withhold it, the established status of the entire complex as a Waqf (Islamic endowment) is definitive. Waqfs cannot be unilaterally taken over or converted to another use.

The reality is that the conversion of the Aya Sofia from mosque to museum was a highly contentious decision taken in a manner that went against the then legal, moral and spiritual standards. It was a state sanctioned action to satisfy a political objective of the hyper-secular post-war Government. This was an injustice and it is not a good look to say that an injustice should be allowed to continue because it has been there for over eight decades.

4. “We don’t need more mosques in Istanbul…”

Would anyone think it reasonable if their local mosque was taken over unilaterally by the Government and then, when they ask for it back, they are brushed off by officials saying, “there are lots of mosques in the city and many are half empty: we are keeping this one.” Of course not. So, if it is not good enough for you, why should it be good enough for anyone else? In fact, this was the argument used by the RSS in taking over the Barbari mosque in India.

A mosque is not a property like every other. It is owned by Allah and not something we are allowed to rationalise or barter away. Allah has no need for even one mosque, but that does not mean we should stop building them or start giving them away. To go by the utilitarian argument, then anything that is not in full use by its owner is fair game for someone else to usurp. We would never accept this for our possessions so how can we accept it for something that does not belong to us?

The hadith about the conquest of Constantinople and praising Muhammad Fatih

5. “This is all a politically motivated…”

Every decision in a public sphere is political, or can be construed to be political, in some way. Building the Aya Sofia into a magnificent cathedral was a political decision by Justinian. Turning it into a mosque upon conquest was also a political decision by Muhammad Fatih. Stopping prayers in the mosque and converting it into a museum was a political decision by Mustafa Kemal. And now, returning the building to use as a mosque and museum is also a political decision by the current Turkish state.

The question is not whether it is a political act to convert the building: it will always have a political dimension. The question is whether you like the politics of someone who was praised by the Prophet ﷺ in a hadith and turned it into a mosque (Muhammad Fatih) or someone who insulted that same Prophet ﷺ as an “immoral Arab” and turned it into a museum (Mustafa Kemal.)

Pick a side.

The Grand Cathedral of Cordoba – formally the Grand Mosque

6. “This will hurt the feelings of non-Muslims and make us look bad.”

This is perhaps the only real argument of them all that has any weight to it. All the previous arguments are intellectual (and less than intellectual) smokescreens for the desire to not hurt the feelings of others – especially when we need all the friends we can get. This is understandable given our current geopolitical situation. This is also why you are more likely to find those Muslims living as minorities objecting to the change of status, reflecting their own precarious situations in their respective countries.

However, if looking at it objectively, we see that this argument also has limitations. Muslims are equally if not more hurt at the ethnic cleansing that took place in Andalusia. Does that mean we get the Al-Hambra or the Cordoba Mosque back? What about the Parthenon – since that used to be a mosque – conquered by the same Muhammad Fatih? What about the Kremlin, where St Basil’s Basilica was made from bricks of a Tatar mosque? And can we have the Philippines back while we are all trying to not offend each other?

Making decisions such as these on the highly subjective grounds of causing offence is not only impractical, but untenable. Many expressions of Islamic faith outside a narrow paradigm of what is palatable to specific audiences, can be seen as offensive to some. If we were to make decisions based first and foremost to protect the comfort of others, you would end up with a set of groundless rituals rather than a faith. It is the equivalent of changing your name to Bob instead of Muhammad since you were worried that even Mo was too exotic. Sometimes, the proper practice of our faith and upholding of our cultural and historical traditions will upset others not because what we are doing is deliberately offensive or wrong, but because we have different values and different standards.

Conclusion

What is most upsetting about the change of use for the Aya Sofia is the double standard at play. Athens has not even one mosque whilst Istanbul has hundreds of churches and synagogues: yet the Greeks are calling the Turks intolerant. The Roman Catholics plundered the Aya Sofia of all treasures and took them to St Marks church in Venice (where they still are to this day): yet it is the Pope that says that he is distressed at the Muslims – who preserved the Byzantine inheritance- for turning it into a mosque and Catholic churches calling for a day of mourning.

All the commentators calling for it to not be converted back into a mosque are also correspondingly mute regarding the Granada Cathedral built on site of a mosque, or the Barbri Mosque turned temple in India, or the Al Ahmar Mosque turned into a bar in Palestine.

But this is human nature and they will shoot their shot. Nonetheless, as Muslims, if we are against the reversion of the Aya Sofia to be a mosque again, then we really need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Just as Muhammad Fatih conquered Constantinople, we need to conquer our own ignorance, our own inferiority complex and our own insecurities.

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#Current Affairs

Oped: The Treachery Of Spreading Bosnia Genocide Denial In The Muslim Community

The expanding train of the Srebrenica genocide deniers includes the Nobel laureate Peter Handke, an academic Noam Chomsky, the Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, as well as almost all Serbian politicians in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. One name in this group weirdly stands out: “Sheikh” Imran Hosein. A traditionally trained Muslim cleric from Trinidad and Tobago, Hosein has carved his niche mostly with highly speculative interpretations of Islamic apocalyptic texts. He has a global following with more than 200 hundred thousand subscribers to his YouTube channel, and his videos are viewed by hundreds of thousands. He has written tens of books in English, some of which had been translated into major world languages. His denial of the Srebrenica genocide may seem outlandish, coming from a Muslim scholar, but a close inspection of his works reveals ideas that are as disturbing as they are misleading.

Much of Hosain’s output centers around interpreting the apocalyptic texts from the Qur’an and Sunnah on the “end of times” (akhir al-zaman). As in other major religious traditions, these texts are highly allegorical in nature and nobody can claim with certainty their true meaning – nobody, except Imran Hosein. He habitually dismisses those who disagree with his unwarranted conclusions by accusing them of not thinking properly. A Scottish Muslim scholar, Dr. Sohaib Saeed, also wrote about this tendency.

In his interpretations, the Dajjal (“anti-Christ”) is American-Zionist alliance (the West or the NATO), the Ottomans were oppressors of the Orthodox Christians who are, in turn, rightfully hating Islam and Muslims, Sultan Mehmed Fatih was acting on “satanic design” when he conquered Constantinople, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a false flag operation carried out by the Mossad and its allies, and – yes! – the genocide did not take place in Srebrenica. Such conspiratorial thinking is clearly wrong but is particularly dangerous when dressed in the garb of religious certainty. 

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Hosain frequently presents his opinions as the “Islamic” view of things. His methodology consists of mixing widely accepted Muslim beliefs with his own stretched interpretations. The wider audience may not be as well versed in Islamic logic of interpretation so they may not be able to distinguish between legitimate Muslim beliefs and Hosain’s own warped imagination. In one of his fantastic interpretations, which has much in common with the Christian apocalypticism, the Great War that is nuclear in nature is coming and the Muslims need to align with Russia against the American-Zionist alliance. He sees the struggle in Syria as part of a wider apocalyptic unfolding in which Assad and Putin are playing a positive role. He stretches the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings to read into them fanciful and extravagant interpretations that are not supported by any established Islamic authority.

Hosain does not deny that a terrible massacre happened in Srebrenica. He, however, denies it was a genocide, contradicting thus numerous legal verdicts by international courts and tribunals. Established by the United Nations’ Security Council, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) delivered a verdict of genocide in 2001 in the case of the Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstić. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague confirmed, in 2007, that genocide took place in Srebrenica. In 2010, two more Bosnian Serb officers were found guilty of committing genocide in Bosnia. The butcher of Srebrenica, Ratko Mladić, was found guilty of genocide in 2017.

In spite of this, and displaying his ignorance on nature and definition of genocide, Hosain stated in an interview with the Serbian media, “Srebrenica was not a genocide. That would mean the whole Serbian people wanted to destroy the whole Muslim people. That never happened.” In a meandering and offensive video “message to Bosnian Muslims” in which he frequently digressed to talking about the end of times, Hosain explained that Srebrenica was not a genocide and that Muslims of Bosnia needed to form an alliance with the Orthodox Serbs. He is oblivious to the fact that the problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the former Yugoslavia stem not from the Bosniaks’ purported unwillingness to form an alliance with the Serbs, but from the aggressive Greater Serbia ideology which had caused misery and destruction in Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Kosovo. 

Hosein’s views are, of course, welcome in Serbia and in Republika Srpska (Serb-dominated entity within Bosnia), where almost all politicians habitually deny that genocide took place in Srebrenica. He had been interviewed multiple times on Serbian television, where he spewed his views of the Ottoman occupation and crimes against the Serbs, the need to form an alliance between Muslims and Russia, and that Srebrenica was not a genocide. His website contains only one entry on Srebrenica: a long “exposé” that claims no genocide took place in Srebrenica. Authored by two Serbs, Stefan Karganović and Aleksandar Pavić, the special report is a hodge-podge of conspiracy theories, anti-globalization and anti-West views. Karganović, who received more than a million dollars over a six year period from the government of the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska for lobbying efforts in Washington, was recently convicted by the Basic Court in Banja Luka on tax evasion and defamation. The Court issued a warrant for Karganović’s arrest but he is still on the loose. 

True conspirators of the Srebrenica killings, according to Hosain, are not the Serbian political and military leaders, and soldiers who executed Srebrenica’s Muslims. The conspirators are unnamed but it does not take much to understand that he believes that the massacres were ultimately orchestrated by the West, CIA, and NATO. Hosain even stated on the Serbian TV that if people who knew the truth were to come forward they would be executed to hide what really happened. Such opinions are bound to add to an already unbearable pain that many survivors of the Srebrenica genocide are experiencing. It is even more painful when Bosniak victims – who were killed because they were Muslims – are being belittled by an “Islamic” scholar who seems to be more interested in giving comfort to those who actually perpetrated the heinous crime of genocide than in recognizing the victims’ pain. These views are, of course, welcome in Serbia, Russia, and Greece.

It is not difficult to see why Hosain’s views would be popular in today’s day and age where misinformation and fake news are propagated even by the world leaders who should know better. A conspiratorial mindset, mistrust of established facts, undermining of international institutions – these are all hallmarks of the post-truth age. In another time, Imran Hosain would be easily exposed for what he truly is: a charlatan who claims religious expertise. Today, however, his opinions are amplified by social media and by the people who already question science and established facts. For these reasons, he needs to be unmasked to safeguard the very religious foundations which he claims to uphold but ultimately undermines. 

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#Life

Staying Emotionally Connected While Social Distancing

Sending food to our neighbors like most Muslim households, is a norm in ours too. As usual, I was about to plate some up for our neighbors Steve and Annette the other day, when suddenly  a gush of uncertainty pricked me, and I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was pounded by so many thoughts: “Would they, like, mind?” “What if they’re reluctant, and think it’s against the whole ‘social distancing’ rule?” “What if I accidentally transfer germs?” “What if they think the virus can transmit through our containers?” Recognizing that I was becoming anxious and giving into cognitive distortions, I simply decided to ask.

I called Steve and said, “Can I bring some food over and leave it by your front door? I’m not sure whether it’s okay or not.” His voice was brimming with gratitude, “Sure!” he responded. “We were just sitting here in the garden wondering whether we should take out leftovers from the fridge or not. So your hot food will be more than welcome.” His warm and welcoming voice washed away my fear and uncertainty, and I felt grounded again.

Maintaining physical distancing doesn’t mean social and emotional detachment. We have to remember that when there is anxiety and uncertainty, what most people need is exactly the opposite of social distancing; we crave solidarity, mutual support, and a sense of strength in togetherness. Social closeness, even from a distance, is definitely good medicine and is much needed these days. If we can’t open our doors, we definitely can open our hearts to people.

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Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says:

إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا 

“Verily, with hardship there is relief.” [Surah Ash-Sharh;6]

Alhumdulillah, it seems that physical separation has allowed us to have more meaningful connections, both, with others as well as our own selves. People are finding purpose, satisfaction and relief in turning some of their time and energy towards others, even though interactions are increasingly online or on the phone and from a distance. The qualities of connection these days seems to be purposeful and  entrenched with gratitude, kindness, and compassion; ingredients which were always there, but due to the ‘touch and go’ mind set, many of us were conditioned to make it more of a touch-base exercise rather than meaningful interaction.

In this COVID-19 era of communal care, we have found alternative ways of creating meaningful connections with people. The same telephones and technology can now give families an extremely useful platform to connect and socialize. It is a blessing that we have the means to connect, as we know that social isolation and loneliness isn’t just emotionally destructive, but also physically so, with some research suggesting loneliness to be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Keeping physically isolated is the right response to the coronavirus pandemic, but we need the exact opposite in response to the loneliness epidemic. So how can we cultivate social well-being while avoiding infection at the same time?

This pandemic is actually offering us an opportunity to deepen and nurture our relationships rather than focusing on broadening them, which unfortunately has been like a disease of the heart where many of us want to have more fake friends, likes, and followers on social platforms. This is an opportunity to fix our unhealthy attachment with our phones and social media. This is an opportunity to harness the beast, to tame it, and then become in charge so that the balance can be restored.

So, investing in checking up on people through our phones, and using virtual meet up platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, etc. to connect with larger family groups to get a sense of meeting virtually is useful, and people find immense joy in seeing their children and grandchildren via these mediums. This is also a time to teach our technology-phobic elders how to use some of these user-friendly apps. We have to be mindful of others’ well-being too, and not let this uncertainty destroy our innate (fitri) natural disposition. Kindness and connection has a universal language, and we can’t let fear dominate us.

The concept that “good fences make good neighbors” isn’t true. We can follow social distancing rules, but also go that extra mile to make sure people around us as okay. Small acts of kindness definitely go a long way. Whether Steve and Anette know it or not, I know that neighbors hold a special status in Islam.

“The best companion to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is the best to his companions, and the best neighbor to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is the best to his neighbors.” [Tirmidhi]

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