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Anti-Shi'ism is hatred of, prejudice, discrimination, violence against Shia Muslims because of their religious beliefs, traditions and cultural heritage. The term was first defined by Shia Rights Watch in 2011, but it has been used in informal research and written in scholarly articles for decades.
The dispute over who was the rightful successor to Muhammad resulted in the formation of two main sects, the Sunni, and the Shia. The Sunni, or followers of the way, followed the caliphate and maintained the premise that any member of the Quraysh tribe could potentially become the successor to the Prophet if he was accepted by the majority of Sunni Muslims. The Shia however, maintained the view that only the person who has been selected by God through the Prophet (Hadith of the pond of Khumm) could become his successor, thus Imam Ali became the religious authority for the Shia people. Militarily established and holding control over the Umayyad government, many Sunni rulers perceived the Shia as a threat – to both their political and religious authority.
The Sunni rulers under the Umayyads sought to marginalize the Shia minority. Throughout history, the persecution of Shias by their Sunni co-religionists has often been characterized by brutal and genocidal acts. Comprising around 15% of the entire world's Muslim population, to this day, the Shia remain a marginalized community in many Sunni dominated countries and in those countries, they do not have the right to freely practice their religion or establish themselves as an organized denomination.
The grandson of Muhammad, Imam Hussein, refused to accept Yazid I's rule. Soon after in 680 C.E., Yazid sent thousands of Umayyad troops to lay siege to Hussein's caravan. During the Battle of Karbala, after holding off the Umayyad troops for six days, Hussein and his seventy-two companions were killed, beheaded, and their heads were sent back to the caliph in Damascus. These seventy-two included Hussein's friends and family. The more notable of these characters are Habib (Hussein's elderly friend), Abbas (Hussein's loyal brother), Akbar (Hussein's 18-year-old son), and Asghar (Hussein's six month old infant). On the night of Ashura (which is called Sham-e-Gharibaan), the army of Yazid burned the tents which Hussein's family and friends had lived in. The only occupants of the tents after the war were the women, children, of Hussein's companions along with Hussein's last ill son named Zain-Ul-Abideen (who became the next Imam after Hussein). During the raid, Yazid's forces looted, burned, and tortured the women and children. They then took the heads of the martyrs, planting them on spearheads to parade. The women's shawls and headdresses were also stripped and they were forced to march beside their men's heads all the way to Damascus. They stayed in prison there for about a year. While Imam Hussein's martydom ended the prospect of a direct challenge to the Umayyad caliphate, it also made it easier for Shiism to gain ground as a form of moral resistance to the Umayyads and their demands. There was also the Umayyad tradition of cursing Ali.
Siege of Baghdad
Persecution under Seljuk/Ottoman Empire
In response to the growth of Shiism, the Ottoman Empire killed Shias in Anatolia. Hundreds of thousands of Shias were killed in the Ottoman Empire, including the Alevis in Turkey, the Alawis in Syria and the Shi'a of Lebanon.
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While Shias and Sunnis have lived side-by-side in the subcontinent for almost fifteen centuries, anti-Shia violence has been growing consistently for the past three centuries. Anti-Shi'ism has two aspects: shiaphobic literature and hate-crimes. The anti Shia literature that portrays Shias as religiously heretic, morally corrupt, politically traitors and lesser human beings sets the ideological framework for the violence against them. In the medieval period, the Middle East saw bloody clashes between both sects but the Indian subcontinent remained safe and peaceful because of the secular policy of Mughals. Until the end of the seventeenth century AD, only two anti-Shia books were written in India: Minhaj al-Din by Makhdoom-ul Mulk Mullah Abdullah Sultanpuri and Radd-e Rawafiz by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi. As far as armed violence is concerned, the medieval period has only few examples of Shias being killed for their beliefs, most notable incidents are the killing of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in 769 AD, the destruction of Multan in 1005 AD, the persecution of Shias at the hands of Sultan Feroz Shah (1351–1388 AD), and the target killing of Mullah Ahmad Thathavi in 1589 AD. However, the killer of Mulla Ahmad Thathavi was served justice by Emperor Akbar. The death of Syed Nurullah Shushtari seems to be politically motivated as Emperor Jahangir disliked his father who did not consider him suitable for the throne, and persecuted men of his court, as an eighteenth century editor of Jahangirnama puts it, "the new sovereign possibly wished to draw a line under the rule of his father and all those associated needed to be sidelined". The region of Srinagar in Kashmir is an exception in middle ages with ten bloody Taraaj-e Shia campaigns. Shias faced severe persecution in India in Kashmir for centuries, by the Sunni invaders of the region which resulted in the killing of many Shias and as a result most of them had to flee the region. Plunder, looting and killing virtually devastated the community. History records 10 such Taraajs between 15th to 19th century in 1548, 1585, 1635, 1686, 1719, 1741, 1762, 1801, 1830, 1872 during which the Shia habitations were plundered, people killed, libraries burnt and their sacred sites desecrated. The community, due to their difficulties, went into the practice of Taqya in order to preserve their lives.
However, in the eighteenth century AD, the number of polemical writings started to increase. It started with Aurangzeb's discrimination against the Shias. The sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir hated the Shias; he abolished the secular policy of Akbar and tried to establish the superiority of the Sunni sect. He supervised the compilation of an encyclopaedia of religious rulings, called fatawa Alamgiri, in which Shias were said to be heretics. The spiritual leader of Bohra Shias, Sayyid Qutb-ud-din, along with his 700 followers were massacred on the orders of Aurangzeb. He banned the tazia processions. In the century following his death, polemical literature and sectarian killings increased.
Shah Waliullah (1703 – 1762 AD) was among those Sunni clerics who were patronized by the Sunni elite. He started his career by translating the anti-Shia track of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, radd-e-rawafiz, into Arabic under the title of al-muqaddima tus-saniyyah fil intisar al-firqa te-sunniya (المقدمۃ الثانیہ فی الانتصار للفرقۃ السنیہ). He continued to criticise the Shias in his books like Qurat-ul Ainain (قراۃ العینین), Azalah-tul Khafa (ازالۃ الخفا), Fayyuz-ul Haramain (فیوض الحرمین), etc. . Other Sunni polemics include Najat al-Muminin (نجات المومنین) by Muhammad Mohsin Kashmiri, and Durr-ut Tahqiq (درالتحقیق) by Muhammad Fakhir Allahabadi. In a letter to Sunni nawabs, Shah Waliullah said:
"Strict orders should be issued in all Islamic towns forbidding religious ceremonies publicly practised by Hindus such as the performance of Holi and ritual bathing in the Ganges. On the tenth of Muharram, the Shias should not be allowed to go beyond the bounds of moderation, neither should they be rude nor repeat stupid things in the streets or bazars".
When on his and Rohilla's invitation, Ahmad Shah Abdali Durrani conquered Delhi, he expelled Shias. Shias of Kashmir were also massacred in an organised campaign after Afghans took power. In Multan, under the Durrani rule, Shia were not allowed to practise their religion.
Shah Waliullah's eldest son, Shah Abd al-Aziz (1746 – 1823 AD), hated Shias the most. He compiled most of the anti-Shia books available to him, albeit in his own language and after adding his own ideas, in a single book Tuhfa Asna Ashariya (تحفہ اثنا عشریہ ). Although he did not declare them apostates or non-Muslims, but he considered them lesser human beings just like what he would think about Hindus or other non-Muslims. In a letter he advises Sunnis to not greet Shias first, and if a Shia greets them first, their response should be cold. In his view, Sunnis should not marry Shias, avoid eating their food and the animals slaughtered by a Shia.
Syed Ahmad Barelvi and Shah Ismail Dihlavi took up arms to enforce their puritanical views and migrated to Peshawar region to establish an Islamic Caliphate. They were the pioneers of anti-Shia terrorism in the subcontinent. Barbara Metcalf says:
"A second group of Abuses Syed Ahmad held were those that originated from Shi’i influence. He particularly urged Muslims to give up the keeping of ta’ziyahs. The replicas of the tombs of the martyrs of Karbala taken in procession during the mourning ceremony of Muharram. Muhammad Isma’il wrote, ‘a true believer should regard the breaking of a tazia by force to be as virtuous an action as destroying idols. If he cannot break them himself, let him order others to do so. If this even be out of his power, let him at least detest and abhor them with his whole heart and soul’. Sayyid Ahmad himself is said, no doubt with considerable exaggeration, to have torn down thousands of imambaras, the building that house the taziyahs" .
These attacks were carried out between 1818 and 1820. Rizvi has given more details about time, places and circumstances in which these attacks were carried out.
With the start of colonial rule in 1857, religious institutions and scholars lost most of the financial support they enjoyed previously. They now had to rely on public funding, the chanda. Secondly, when the British masters decided to introduce modern societal reforms, and everybody became ascribed to a singular identity in census and politically important in voting. Thus, politicisation of religion and marking boundaries of the spheres of influence became a financial need of the religious leaders. They started to describe everybody belonging to their sect or religion as one monolithic group of people whose religion was in danger. The third important social change was the printing press which made writing and publishing pamphlets and books easy and cheap. The fourth factor was the railways and postal service; it became easy for communal leaders to travel, communicate and build networks beyond their place of residence. This changed the religious discourse drastically and gave birth to communal and sectarian violence. The puritanical wahhabists had already excluded Azadari from the Sunni Islam, and Arya Samaj and Shudhis started to ask Hindus to refrain from Azadari.
By the start of the 1900s, the majority of Sunnis still observed Muharram. Molana Abdul Shakoor Lakhnavi devised a clever plan to widen the gulf between the Shias and Sunnis. He started to advocate a celebration of victory of Imam Hussain over Yazid. He established a separate Sunni Imambargah at Phul Katora and asked Sunnis to wear red or yellow dress instead of black, and carry a decorated charyari flag instead of the traditional black alam-e-Abbas. Instead of honouring the Sahaba on their birthdays, he started to arrange public meetings under the banner of bazm-e-siddiqi, bazm-e-farooqi and bazm-e-usmani, in the first ten days of Muharram to revere the first three Caliphs and named it Madh-e-Sahaba. He would discuss the lives of the first three Caliphs and attack Shia beliefs. Shias saw it an attempt to sabotage the remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala and started to recite tabarra in response .
After the failure of the Khilafat movement in the 1920s, the political ulema had lost their support in public and Muslims started to follow modern minds like Muhammad Ali Jinnah. To keep themselves relevant, the ulema established a militant Deobandi organisation, Majlis Ahrar-e-Islam, in 1931. They came from neighbouring Malihabad, Kanpur, Delhi, Meerut and from as far as Peshawar . This organisation can be considered as predecessor of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). They first agitated against the Ahmedis in Kashmir and now they were looking for an opportunity. It was provided by Molana Abdul shakoor Lakhnavi’s son Molana Abdul Shakoor Farooqi. He was a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband and he had established a seminary in Lucknow in 1931 right on the route of Azadari, called Dar-ul-Muballighin . Molana Abdul Shakoor Farooqi wrote many books and pamphlets. Shias responded by writing rejoinders. As paper had become available in plenty, these writings spread all over subcontinent and caused incidents of violence, though negligible compared to what was happening in UP. Dhulipala says:
"The problem broke out with renewed vigour in 1936 on Ashura day when two Sunnis disobeyed orders and publicly recited Charyari in the city centre of Lucknow. They were arrested and prosecuted, but then on Chhelum day more Sunnis took part in reciting Charyari and fourteen were arrested. This led to a new agitation by the Lucknow Sunnis in favour of reciting these verses publicly, which came to be known as Madhe Sahaba" .
Azadari in UP was no more peaceful; it would never be the same again. Violence went so far that on Ashura 1940, a Deobandi terrorist attacked the Ashura procession with a bomb. Hollister writes:
"Conflicts between Sunnis and Shias at Muharram are not infrequent. Processions in the cities are accompanied by police along fixed lines of march. The following quotations from a single newspaper are not usual. They indicate what might happen if government did not keep the situation under control: ‘adequate measures avert incidents’, ‘Muharram passed off peacefully’, ‘All shops remained closed in . . . in order to avoid incidents’, ‘Several women offered satyagraha in front of the final procession . . . about twenty miles from Allahabad. They object to the passing of the procession through their fields’, ‘the police took great precautions to prevent a breach of the peace’, ‘as a sequel to the cane charge by the police on a Mehndi procession the Moslems . . . did not celebrate the Muharram today. No ta’zia processions were taken out . . . Business was transacted as usual in the Hindu localities’, ‘Bomb thrown on procession’. Not all of these disturbances spring from sectarian differences, but those differences actuate many fracases. Birdwood says that, in Bombay, where the first four days of Muharram are likely to be devoted to visiting each other's tabut khanas, women and children as well as men are admitted, and members of other communities – only the Sunnies are denied ‘simply as a police precaution’" .
Most foreign slaves in Xinjiang were Shia Ismaili Mountain Tajiks of China. They were referred to by Sunni Turkic Muslims as Ghalcha, and enslaved because they were different from the Sunni Turkic inhabitants. Shia Muslims were sold as slaves in Khotan. The Muslims of Xinjiang traded Shias as slaves.
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India is a secular state, and adherents of Shia Islam in India are free to practice their faith freely. Additionally, the day of Ashura, listed as Moharram, and the birthdate of Ali are recognized as public holidays. However Shias Muslims in Kashmir are not allowed to practice mourning on the day of Ashura. The state government of Jammu and Kashmir has placed restrictions over Muharram processions which is seen as opposite to the right to freedom of religion that is fundamental right of Indian citizens. Every year clashes take place between the mourners and Indian guards on the eve of Karbala martyrdom anniversaries.
There is widespread violence and discrimination against Afghan Hazaras, who became an easy target for the Sunni extremists due to their distinct features. Abdur Rahman Khan is responsible for hundreds of thousands of Afghan Shia deaths. Nowadays, Hazaras are regularly targeted by the Taliban or ISIS. They also face discriminatory policies from the Sunni dominated, central government in Kabul, such as lack of proper protection or underfunding of their majority regions.
There is limited violence against Shias in Bangladesh. For example, on October 24, 2015 a Shia mosque was blasted while 1 died and many injured as well. Another most widely discussed attack took place at Haripur in Shibganj in Bogra. The Muazzin was shot dead in the Shiite mosque and at least four men including the Imam were injured while Magrib prayer was going on.
A majority of Bahrain's population are Shia, with figures between 35-40% people. The ruling Al Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslim, arrived in Bahrain from Qatar at the end of the eighteenth century. Shiites alleged that the Al Khalifa failed to gain legitimacy in Bahrain and established a system of "political apartheid based on racial, sectarian, and tribal discrimination." Vali Nasr, a leading Iranian expert on Middle East and Islamic world said "For Shi'ites, Sunni rule has been like living under apartheid".
An estimated 1000 Bahrainis have been detained since the 2011 uprising and Bahraini and international human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of torture and abuse of Shia detainees. According to csmonitor.org, the government has gone beyond the crushing of political dissent to what "appears" to be an attempt to "psychologically humiliating the island's Shiite majority into silent submission."
Discrimination against Shia Muslims in Bahrain is severe and systematic enough for a number of sources (Time magazine, Vali Nasr, Yitzhak Nakash, Counterpunch, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, etc.) to have used the term “apartheid” in describing it.
Ameen Izzadeen writing in the Daily Mirror asserts that
after the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Bahrain remained the only country where a minority dictated terms to a majority. More than 70 percent of the Bahrainis are Shiite Muslims, but they have little or no say in the government.
The Christian Science Monitor describes Bahrain as practicing
a form of sectarian apartheid by not allowing Shiites to hold key government posts or serve in the police or military. In fact, the security forces are staffed by Sunnis from Syria, Pakistan, and Baluchistan who also get fast-tracked to Bahraini citizenship, much to the displeasure of the indigenous Shiite population.
While Shia activists claim the number exceeds one million, however other estimates say there are only a few thousand. Estimated numbers of Egypt's Shias range from 800,000 to about two to three million, however, there is no official count.
The government began turning its attention towards Shiites during the Presidency of Hosni Mubarak in order to build better relations with the Arab Gulf State, Shia activists in Egypt also claimed the Muslim Brotherhood which was in power in Egypt in 2013 claimed the government encouraged anti-Shiism, seeing it as a religious duty, however, some Salafist groups criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for not doing enough to stop the spread of Shiism. Another Shiite activist claimed he was arrested and held for 15 months and tortured by the Egyptian State Security Investigations Service during Mubarak's presidency.
On December 29, 2011 in Nangkrenang, Sampang, Madura Island a Shia Islamic boarding school, a school adviser's house and a school's principal house were burned by local villagers and people from outside. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world which is dominated by Sunnis. A day after the incident, a Jakarta Sunni preacher said: "It was their own fault. They have established a pesantren (Islamic school) in a Sunni area. Besides, being a Shiite is a big mistake. The true teaching is Sunni and God will only accept Sunni Muslims. If the Shiites want to live in peace, they have to repent and convert." Amnesty International had recorded many cases of intimidation and violence against religious minorities in Indonesia by radical Islamic groups and urged the Indonesian government to provide protection for hundred of Shiites who have been forced to return to their village in East Java.
The Malaysian government is seeking to prevent Shia Islam from spreading—despite the country's hosting a 250,000-strong Shia population. Home Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Abdul Rahim Mohamad Radzi announced Last Year that Shia followers who were only a small community of three camps 10 years ago are now a population of 250,000, including 10 active groups, across Malaysia. "The development of information technology is among the factors for their growth as the teachings are spreading through a range of social sites,” Radzi said, urging that the Shia movement be rooted out.
The ISA was used on several occasions to target Shi‘a in Malaysia. Ten Shi‘a were arrested in 1997 under the ISA and another six suffered the same fate in October 2000. The federal system has also meant that adherence to the anti-Shi‘a fatwa has not been standardized, even among those states in which it carries legal force. In December 2010, for example, 200 Shi‘a were arrested by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department for celebrating ashura under the Selangor state shari‘a criminal enactment law. Four years later, 114 Shi‘a were arrested by the Perak Islamic Religious Affairs Department with assistance from the Malaysian police.
Despite the fact that the country was founded as a secular state, Shia Muslim civilians were victims of unprovoked hate since the beginning, with the “Islamisation” in the 1980’s, Pakistan has been seeing a surge in violence against Shia Muslims in the country in recent decades.
Over 1,900 Shias (including Hazaras and Ismailis) were killed in bomb blasts or targeted gun attacks from 2012 to May 2015 alone.
The violence has claimed lives of thousands of men, women and children. Shia make up 20% of the Muslim population in Pakistan. Doctors, businessmen and other professionals have been targeted in Karachi by Sunni militants on a regular basis. Hazara people in Quetta, have lost nearly 8000 community members. Most have been targeted by terrorist attacks by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan which are a Sunni militant organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and Taliban. In the northern areas of Pakistan, such as Parachinar and Gilgit-Baltistan, Sunni militants have continuously been attacking and killing Shia Muslim civilians. On August 16, 2012, some 25 Shia passengers were pulled out of four buses on Babusar road, when they were going home to celebrate Eid with their families. They were summarily executed by Al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni Muslim militants. On the same day, three Hazara community members were shot dead in Pakistan's southwestern town of Quetta. Sunni extremists, aligned with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, yearly are killing Shia civilians by the hundreds in Pakistan.
The sole purpose of terrorists such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan is to cleanse Pakistan of Shia Muslims. On 26 June 2018, government of Pakistan lifted ban on Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, unfroze its assets and removed its notorious leader from terrorist watch list.
In modern-day Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi rulers limit Shia political participation to a few notable people. These notables benefit from their ties to power and in turn, are expected to control their community. Saudi Shias comprise roughly 15% of the 28 million Saudis (estimate 2012). Although some live in Medina (known as the Nakhawila), Mecca, and even Riyadh, the majority are concentrated in the oases of al-Hasa and Qatif in the oil-rich areas of the Eastern Province. They have faced long-term religious and economic discrimination. They have usually been denounced as heretics, traitors, and non-Muslims. Shias were accused of sabotage, most notably for bombing oil pipelines in 1988. A number of Shias have been executed. In response to Iran's militancy, the Saudi government collectively punished the Shia community in Saudi Arabia by placing restrictions on their freedoms and marginalizing them economically. The ulama (who adhere to Salafism) were given permission to sanction violence against the Shia. What followed were fatwas passed by the country's leading cleric, Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz which denounced the Shias as apostates. Another by Adul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama even sanctioned the killing of Shias. This call was reiterated in Salafi religious literature as late as 2002.
Unlike Iraq and Lebanon which have a sizable number of wealthy Shia, Saudi Arabia does not. There have been no Shia cabinet ministers. They are kept out of critical jobs in the armed forces and the security services. There are no Shia mayors or police chiefs, and none of the three hundred Shia girls’ schools in the Eastern Province have a Shia principal.
The government has restricted the names that Shias can use for their children in an attempt to discourage them from showing their identity. Saudi textbooks are hostile to Shiism often characterizing the faith as a form of heresy. Salafi teachers frequently tell classrooms full of young Shia schoolchildren that they are heretics.
In the city of Dammam, a quarter of whose residents are Shia, Ashura is banned, and there is no distinctly Shia call to prayer. There is no Shia cemetery for the nearly 25% of the 600,000 Shias that live there. There is only one mosque for the city's 150,000 Shias. The Saudi government has often been viewed as an active oppressor of Shias because of the funding of the Wahhabi ideology which denounces the Shia faith.
In March 2011, police opened fire on peaceful protesters in Qatif, and after Shia unrest in October 2011 the Saudi government promised to crush any further trouble in the eastern province with an "iron fist."
Saudi Arabia continues its anti-Shia campaign both domestically and abroad. According to the Independent, "Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia."
The Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, the Shiite grievances are not merely doctrinal issues but stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalization bordering on apartheid.
In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr, who had called for pro-democracy demonstrations, along with 47 other Saudi citizens sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court on terrorism charges.
Since May 2017 in response to protests against the government, the predominantly Shia town of Al-Awamiyah has been put under full siege by the Saudi military. Residents are not allowed to enter or leave, and military indiscriminately shells the neighborhoods with airstrikes, mortar and artillery fire along with snipers shooting residents. Dozens of Shia civilians were killed, includinga a three-year-old and a two-year-old children. The Saudi government claims it is fighting terrorists in al-Awamiyah.
On July 26, 2017, Saudi authorities began refusing to give emergency services to wounded civilians. Saudi Arabia has also not provided humanitarian help to trapped citizens of Awamiyah.
In August 2017, it was reported that the Saudi government demolished 488 buildings in Awamiyah. This demolition came from a siege of the city by the Saudi government, as it continued to try to prevent the citizens of the city from gaining their rights.
In February 2019, while visiting Prophet’s grave in Medina, a six years old boy was beheaded in front of his mother after they confirmed to be Saudi Shia Muslims to an unknown, unrelated man that approached them. The boy was beheaded with the help of broken piece of glass in front of his screaming and frightened mother.
Although 45% of Yemenis are Shiites, discrimination against Shiites have been omnipresent in Yemen. It was mostly practiced by the Sunnis, which made up 55% of Yemeni population. This had led to the rise of Houthi movement and subsequent sectarian conflict in Yemen, sparking the civil war.
Persecution of Shia Muslims by Sunnis:
- Salafi movement
- Shia genocide
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