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Raif Georges Khoury {*}

Christians in Lebanon and the Arab Culture


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 7/2007, P. 471-482
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Christians from Lebanon in modern times played a key role not only with the development of their own country, but also in the entire Arab and Islamic world. Too small a place is granted to them within the oriental sciences, particularly the Islam science, and the Arabic studies. Nevertheless all specialists know how determining their contribution was and has remained up to this day within the entire modern Arab Renaissance. Therefore I considered it necessary to set a sign in our relations with the Christians in the Lebanon: Despite the war in South Lebanon in July and August 2006 eleven professors from Christian universities and scientific institutions came to Munich to report in detail about their tasks in the service of a multi-denominational society {1}. Their contributions were intensively discussed. Before my remarks on Lebanon, I would like to tell shortly something about the role of the Christians in the old-Arab and Islamic time, particularly in Baghdad, since they already at that time made possible the opening of Islam and the Islamic empire first to the Biblical and afterwards to the old-Greek world.


Influence of the Aramaic Christians on old Arabia and the Islamic world

From pre-Islamic time mainly poetry was - up to the 8th century orally - handed down. The Aramaic Christians could enrich Islam here above all spiritually; since they came from Judaism and the Arabic language was considerably influenced by the Aramaic one within the same family of languages. These Aramaeans, better called Syrians or Syro Aramaeans (Syria is called after them), were the closest followers of the Apostle Paul's teachings, from whom they took over a special veneration of Jesus, particularly in the area of "wisdom and knowledge", the "treasures" of which are fully in him (St Paul). No program can be clearer, to prove not only the spirituality of the Christians, but also of many Islamic scholars, among whom according to statements of the Koran the figure of Jesus takes up a special position.

Under the Arab caliphs, especially in Bagdad, the contribution of those Christians was of special importance, because they since the second half of the 8th century acted not only as court physicians, but in the first place were entrusted with the imparting and the first adaptation of the old-Greek culture in Islam.



They gradually translated into Aramaic and then better and better into Arab. The caliphs and their advisers could observe how the Koran opened new horizons, particularly since the old Arab world had usually been restricted to poetic areas, which were very limited in their contents. Above all the great ruler of Bagdad, Harun ar-Raschid, and his son al-Ma´mun wanted - for the completion of their power - to see everything represented in their capital that makes a court and a rule great and competitive. That's why they took advantage of the specialists from the Christian camp, who knew Greek very well, to get first the translation activity going. Thus whole generations of Aramaean Christians worked for them, to be precise at an academy that was founded for it by al-Ma´mun in Baghdad in the year 832 under the name "Bait al-Hikma" (House of Wisdom); what clearly was to point to the old-Greek influences.

This contribution of the Christians in the old-Arab work of literature was especially studied by Louis Cheikho SJ (1859-1927), who taught at the University Saint Joseph in Beirut, and after him by Camille Héchaïmé SJ. In his book "Louis Cheikho et son livre 'Le Christianisme et la littérature chrétienne en Arabie avant l´Islam'" (Beirut 1967) the innovative role of the Jesuits in the development of their surroundings becomes apparent: They did everything - in their way and in conformity with the then dominant ideas of their Order -that was in their power to free the spirit of the Orient from its inflexibility and open for it the gates of the European culture {2}.


Lebanon - Turntable between East and West

The danger of Lebanon's total destruction is of great importance not only for the Lebanese, but beyond that also for all their neighbours. And this not for purely tourist reasons! The reasons are in the first place cultural and beyond that also economical ones. The Lebanese Christians as engine of the modern development in the Arab and Islamic world played an important role, which by the troubled times the country is going through, is either disregarded or ignored. To bring out this importance is a question of objectivity and also of justice to the Lebanese people, which only suffered in the last years and still suffers. With it it is about the naming of characteristics that are typically Lebanese and that made up and still make up the strength of this country.

Lebanon, this "Switzerland of the Orient", is indeed a very beautiful country. Lebaneses and Arabs know that; from there stems their joy to be there. This joy is however accompanied by increasing feelings of envy, because the country always was and still is a country of work, of innovative work:



"Already in the Bible Lebanon's possible destruction was regarded as disaster. Everything that was perfume, tenderness, sovereignty and purity had been brought in connection with the cedars … The earthly Paradise was there." {3}

One can feel the poetry gushing from these words of Farajallah Haïk. It is not difficult to understand that this country inspired many personalities and was a particularly fruitful soil for achievement and innovative work. As an open, multi-denominational area and turntable between east and west since the time of the Phoenicians, the Lebanon was able to give a great deal to the world:

"In the intellectual area the Lebanese always liked to appear creative. This is expressed by an abundance of writings of any kind. What characterizes him is his desire to spread his thoughts. His writings almost always betray a need to travel far; and that is surely what he has as typically Phoenician heritage: To sow in distant regions." {4}


Lebanese Christians - Engine of Modern Development in the Arab World

All important specialized literature stresses the creative mental activity of the Lebanese {5}. Lebanon produced many personalities, to whose effect across the whole world Nabil Harfisch draws our attention {6}. His information concerns very different areas: literary, scientific, military, political etc. As proof the author quotes also great poets, whose statements I should like to express by the fine verses of the still living poet Said Aql (born in 1912) from the city Zahlé:

"(Lebanon) is not cedars, not mountain and water, but the fatherland of love; in love there is no resentment. It is a fire, therefore it cannot mislead; it is hard work and a hand that yields beauty, and a spirit. Do not say: My homeland, while you are attacking a world, for we are neighbours and relatives for the world. And from the small fatherland we go through the earth back and forth, by strewing our villages on every bank. We challenge world, peoples and regions and build, where we want it, a (new) Lebanon." {7}

The picture of this very ethereal work of literature, written decades ago, suits very well the current situation of the Lebanese, who aim at love and good neighbourhood; as descendants of the Phoenicians they travel to far-off parts and innovatively cultivate and develop their culture and that of the world.



All great literary historians and literary critics stress this innovative spirit, in connection with all denominations, so also Marun Abbud (1886-1962):

"In the depth of monasteries and in close proximity to mosques a fire has remained of the large fire, like the eternal fire of the magicians … Thus the caves of the mountains in the time of fright (i.e. under the Ottomans), remained a camp for knowledge, a kneading machine for the ferment of science. … In a chamber, three inches broad and four long, a monk who was shrivelled up by fasting used to crawl or to sit on the ground, before him an oil lamp without glass, the fluttering light of which painted silhouettes and spectres, as if it was a magic lamp; a monk who bent over his book, as the nursing mothers bend over their weaned children, reading with eagerness, until his fingers recovered and the cramp of his feet had disappeared, to return to his work. …Such was the work of the clergymen of all denominations." {8}


Pioneering in Language and Culture

The Lebanese' achievements were many and diverse, for example in the art of printing: The oldest printing shop of the Orient is mentioned in the year 1610 in the Maronite monastery Quzhayya. From there the printing art gradually spread through the whole country (only in 1821 it came to Egypt). The numerous schools in the country were the oldest in the Arab and Islamic world, and here it must be added that the competition between the denominations particularly enlivened the intellectual life. When a school was founded by one denomination, at once a second one was added by another denomination. The American Cornelius van Dyck (1818-1895), orientalist and physician of Dutch descent, founded together with the powerful representative of the modern Renaissance Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) the American school of Ubayh, which in 1866 was raised to the "American University of Beirut". That resulted in the foundation of the school of the Jesuits in Ghazir (near Jounieh), which a few years after the American University became the "Université Saint Joseph". After the creation of a magazine by the Jesuits, the Americans did the same; similarly it happened even with printing-houses {9}.

Wherever they lived the Lebanese scientists published everything that could contribute to the renewal of the Arab world in the numerous magazines and newspapers created by them in Lebanon, in Egypt and everywhere in the world where they lived. Many pioneers would have to be quoted here. I content myself with giving the names of those whose effect was particularly great, as e.g. the Maronite Butrus al-Bustani already mentioned: He wrote encyclopaedic works, created several magazines in which he himself published, translated and commentated. He helped American missionaries of Beirut, who had created their university, to translate the Bible; it was published between 1860 and 1865. He gave his view on all important topics of culture, education and sciences.



Numerous further members of his family became very famous, at the head of them Sulaiman al-Bustani (1856-1925): Politician, representative of Beirut in the Ottoman parliament, later in Istanbul minister for agriculture and mineral resources, poet and philosopher. He for the first time translated the Iliad in beautiful verses and published it in the year 1904 with his Lebanese friends in Cairo. There he had emigrated after his resignation as minister, when the sultan decided to fight at the Germans' side in the First World War {10}. As the first writer this high-carat mind wrote a book about the movement of the young Turks against their sultan in the year 1908, he time and again referred to freedom; all chapters of this writing were full of reminiscences of the French Revolution and influenced among other things also Kemal Atatürk's emancipated, laicist spirit. By the way he had mastered about 16 languages; Greek he had learned with the Jesuits in Beirut.

It is worthwhile to return again to the translation of the Bible: In the Catholic translation at the Université Saint Joseph the greatest philologist of the modern Arabic language, Ibrahim al-Yazidji (1847-1906) took part, son of another pioneer Nasif al-Yazidji (1800-1871). While the father worked for the American Protestants on their Bible, the son remained faithful to the Catholics. He learned Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages, to be able to work better as philologist; due to his many and divers talents he became the philologist par excellence. The Bible of the Jesuits was and remained the linguistically most successful in the Orient, particularly since the "Catholic printing-house" (Imprimerie Catholique) as by far the best printing-house published it in a splendid way (1876-1880).

All that and much more in the intellectual development was possible, because authors of this kind wanted to lead by their innovative work into a better world, in which the Orient remains Orient, but the strength of its past is enriched by the modern European development. Those are typically Lebanese characteristics. Marun Abbud tries to explain this accordingly:

"All peoples of the earth came through this region. They fought each other, and then they disappeared leaving cultural heirs with us. … Look, you see in Lebanon monasteries and temples, fortresses and citadels, churches, cathedrals and mosques, amphitheatres and stadiums; a monastery is on each summit, on each hill a temple or a fortress and in each valley a fortified refuge. … Nature has cut the mountains as houses for our ancestors, and these colonized and inhabited them; thus cities and villages formed around sources. Nature was the most important engineer for this mountain (Mont Liban - mountain Lebanon), and each day it prepares for us other miracles. Man was … first employee or mediator; then this Lebanon rose and its culture developed: from the grotto of Tannubin (in the neighbourhood of the cedars) up to the domes of the Vatican, to the Eiffel Tower and to the castles of Cambridge and the Kremlin." {11}

Lebanese became famous authors and scientists of high repute; they considerably advanced the cultural and social development in the modern Arab Renaissance.



Their beginnings are attributed to Napoleon's campaign, but in Lebanon they are much older and bore their first fruits by the Maronites in Rome. Here about the end of the 16th century the so-called "Collegium Maronitum Romanum" was founded {12}, and shortly afterwards clergymen went to Rome, who had considerably co-founded the oriental studies in Europe and thus connected west and east; particularly since some of them returned as bishops to their homeland and there began with the development work.

In this area too a lot of names could be mentioned, which played a key role in the development of the Arab-Islamic world. I would like to point to some people who wrote and said splendid things about the problems of their society, about its appearance within their own countries and in connection with the adjustment to the modern age, and about the numerous crises: above all identity crises in the religious, cultural and political area. Their statements form a kind of will for the generations after them and should be time and again read, discussed and meditated; particularly since they are linguistically and rhetorically outstandingly formulated. They have shaken the Lebanese out of their apathy and showed them the way for a reasonable living together. With their assistance the country could be saved {13}.


Djubran Khalil Djubran: Love - Liberty - Work

Just language and culture were venerated, yes almost held sacred by great cultural personalities of the Lebanon. They are the Arabs' language and culture, and both should be brought to the level of the foreign European languages and cultures. The author of the best-seller "The Prophet", i.e. Djubran Khalil Djubran (1883-1931), in Germany known as Khalil Gibran, makes this his task. He compares the life of mankind with an impressive procession that always goes forward and causes "a golden dust that whirls up from the sides of the road and from which languages, governments and ideologies get their origin; and these have power to affect those who run behind them". Those who follow are thus influenced; they have no other chance than to take up what is "whirling" around them, and to treat it so well that it becomes a component of their own existence.

In view of the European development Orientals are not allowed to proceed differently, in order not to completely lose their identity. Djubran wants to induce them to an equalisation, and repeats his appeals like a will, so that they profit from their past and assimilate the benefit in a way that they are enriched but at the same time remain intact in their personality. That's why the program he sets up for them is a three-dimensional one and contains biblical, Islamic and European components.



This program, which is valid not only for Lebanon but for the whole Arab-Islamic world, to which his books, his pieces of advice and admonishments turn, can be summarized in three points: Love, liberty and work. These three basic principles run through his whole work, and there is not a single author in the Arab world and beyond it who has given his view on them so often in thrilling, innovative and biblically coined pictures.

It is a necessity to stress that, and Lebanon could have been saved from the civil war, if one had fallen back on the typical Lebanese tradition of cultural living together and on the democratic coexistence built upon it: It is a "way of life" à la libanaise, in which all denominations and groups of the society are involved, led by high-carat intellectuals of the Lebanese life, who were certainly most clearly represented by Djubran {14}. He was a genuine apostle of an efficient culture and identity, particularly since he constantly pointed to the living cultivation of the cultural past, which had to be further dealt with and made fruitful. That's why he gave a chapter in his book the title: "Uhibbu mina l-nasi l-amila" (among men I love the active one), i.e. that one who takes the achievements of his past seriously and increases them in the light of modern knowledge. He untiringly repeated this appeal after each example worked out by him of exemplary useful handling of the affairs of life in harmony and without any breaking up.


Mayy Ziyada: Pluralism and Democracy

With the authoress and suffragette Mayy Ziyada (1886-1941) the role of culture in the life of society gets a special dimension: She herself was a living model for cultivation and development of all values in society by opening herself to everything that she then put at the disposal of this very society. For it she spoke, wrote and fought in many and diverse ways {15}: All important languages and cultures of the Western European world live with her apart from the Arabic, which she - by a unique opening to the others - wanted to support, enrich and so make competitive. The following sentences describe the core of her statements on pluralism and democratic conceptions in society:

"(Religious) doctrines, nationalities and habits split us; competition and pride bring us asunder. We must set an end to that, for when there is one among us who idolizes one doctrine, then there is another one who idolizes a different one; and when some of us belong to one nationality, others support another nationality. When we belong to a certain people and others to other peoples, when someone vehemently represents an opinion among us, which however is not represented by his neighbour,



or a tradition which his companion rejects in favour of a different one, then we are able to profit from those differences and contrasts for our individual development - i.e. for the development of the individual personality in us, the individual doctrine and the individual peoples. But after we have given each individual affair its right we must not forget that we all live in one world, which is not shaped uglier by differences. And this world is nothing else but that of the only light, from the white prism of which various colours radiate up to infiniteness, and in the area of which forms are spread that are believed to be conflicting …, but in truth they are supplementary conditions and means of complement."

Beautiful pictures which our wrecked world should perceive and which we should memorize! We, who live together in this one world, understand that the world has been created multicoloured, but in complementary unity: therefore a divine order for us to fill this unity with culture. "Who sows injustice, will harvest tribulation and will perish by the rod of his malice" (Prov 22.8), the experience of the sages of the Old Testament says. But who takes heed to and looks after culture will certainly harvests peace, humanity and in any case smoothes the way to democracy. For: "Point de culture sans religion et point de religion sans culture" (there is no culture without religion and no religion without culture), repeated the Dominican Georges Anawati time and again up to his death in the year 1994. This too is like a will we first must not forget in the west, for then our charisma could influence the so-called "Third World" and so enliven it: "Who has ears to listen may listen!" (Mt 11.15).


European Impulses for the Future of Lebanon?

Lebanon's future depends on a better, more enlightened development of the Arab and Islamic world. A more modern interpretation of the Koran and the Islamic law would solve many problems. In former times that was wanted; therefore one always kept looking for innovative ways not to restrain the development of the empire but to continue it successfully. Today there are unfortunately too many blockades from different areas that prevent a free development. In his book "Al-Tafkir wa-l-hidjra" (Thinking and emigration, Beirut 1997), which gives much cause for thought, the Beirut professor of philosophy Nasif Nassar emphasizes, how much philosophy and free thinking get in the way of the local politicians. That's why the authorities wish to banish them, what the title of the book wants to express clearly. Also the loud outcry of the Egyptian philosopher and journalist Zaki Nadjib Mahmud (1905-1993) is directed against this banishing of free thinking.



His book has the title "Mudjtama´a djadid au al-karitha" (A new society or disaster, 1987) and demands a genuine revolution of the mind.

The economic and social researcher Meinhard Miegel opens our eyes for the radical changes in the world, by showing how the west slowly but surely loses the future {16}: The enormous lead of the west, from which all economic impulses considerably proceeded in earlier epochs, is shrinking. There are more and more countries that are about to make up this lead; they produce more favourably and with increasingly better technology. Europe is dwindling and constantly aging, so that it becomes for the billions of Chinese, Indians and of course Muslims a "quantité négligeable" compared with the world. Europe has no chance to get out of the downward trend without radical changes, which must be based on culture and particularly on innovative achievements. These could give new impulses to the Arab-Islamic world, far away from the destructive interferences of a thoughtless foreign policy. Why do the European countries, which in modern times considerably influenced the world with their cultural superiority, not fall back on the strength of those cultural achievements, to peacefully advance the world before it is too late? There is still time, and from Europe, and I believe only from Europe salutary impulses could go out also for the world.

That war in Lebanon accordingly should never have taken place. Europe slept and still sleeps with regard to foreign policy and loses its reputation exactly in the only pro-Western moulded Arab country; not to talk about the other states in which the disappointment about Europe led to a genuine opposition, to a fighting mentality. To fight terrorism, it is necessary to think in global terms and to take preventive measures that eliminate misery and exploitation or make them at least more bearable for people. The friends of the west should on no account - just in areas where the terror grows up - be chosen only according to interests. This by the way is in the west's own interest, which could only so successfully stop its increasing unimportance and offer more humane development perspectives to the Third World.


Lebanon and the Arab World

The Arab-Islamic world however is at present on the verge of the changes that take place in Asia and shape our world considerably. As one can see from Miegel's description from the oil regions, which still have the largest money reserves of the world, economically seen practically no moving impulses come. What will become these countries after the oil period?



Where are the preventive infrastructural measures? Beyond that: Why does the Arab world nothing reasonable undertake for a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and with the western world work on it until a solution is found?

Were the Arab countries sleeping, when in July 2006 the war in Lebanon began and roads, bridges and houses were bombarded? Together they could by peaceful means soon have stopped this senseless war and its causes. We do not talk about other political problems that could be solved even more easily. We do not talk about the religious crises and unnecessary tensions that - due to the increasing poverty - have devastating consequences. And finally: We do not talk about the cultural stagnation in the training system {17}, which still almost exclusively consists in learning by heart, nor about the high percentage of illiterates in many Arab countries - whereas everything necessary for a new beginning is at hand. But freedom to form and express one's opinion and Idjtihad (make great efforts in ..., to allow others to benefit from ...) in the sense of its classical meaning must be the standard. There is no safe future without this.

In a recently published contribution I pointed to the fundamental role of language and culture in the development of the early Islam; how they in the first place with Christian-Arab authors of the modern time contribute to lead a cultural and inter-religious dialogue {18}. This can be only worth imitating, but who remembers nowadays that the great Egyptian literary critic Taha Husayn (1889-1973) has less and less effect in the Arab world, and that in Lebanon numerous denominational groups still talk at cross purposes?

After the end of the Second World War the situation of the Christians in Lebanon was still unassailable: With about 60 per cent they still formed a clear majority of the population. The system of proportional representation, introduced by France as protection power and after the First World War as mandate power, was in force without reservation: the President a Catholic Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the President of Parliament a Shiite, all other offices allotted in proportion to the number of votes received. The problematic situation of the refugees from Palestine, particularly after the so-called Black September 1970, shook the country and led to the civil war starting in 1975. Foreign interventions of Israel, which kept the south of the country occupied until a few years ago, and of Syria, which as so-called peace power left the country only in the year 2005, made things worse - and that in a country that has only a kind of police army.

Many Christians emigrated, like millions before them in the course of the last centuries. The Islamic population increased more and more, so that the Christians now amount to scarcely 40 per cent. The renewed crisis about the judicial sentencing of the murderers of the in 2005 killed Sunni Prime Minister Al Hariri - this time between Sunnis and Shiites, who are supported by Syria and Iran



- brings the country after the war between Israel and the Hezbollah army into a difficult situation, which like in Iraq can easily escalate. The Shiites accuse the government coalition of insufficiently or not at all integrating them and other political groups that have no share in power into decision-making. The Christians could lose much with this crisis; their future therefore depends on the developments in the Middle East.

The Lebanese must together create a Lebanon for all ethnic groups, denominations and religions: a Lebanon in freedom, mutual understanding and co-operation. With their well-known good qualities they could easily realize this, if only they wanted to. The Christian-Lebanese educational institutions are special and probably unique places of culture, science and liberally tolerant reconciliation in a more and more petrified atmosphere. This should be recognized and accordingly supported from the west.



{1} This contribution was presented as introduction at the conference "Theology, Philosophy and Liberation of the Mind in Orient and Occident" from 24 to 30 September 2006 in the Catholic Academy in Bavaria.

{2} See also: C. Héchaïmé, Bibliographie analytique du Père Louis Cheikho (Beirut 1978).

{3} F. Haïk, Liban (Paris 1958) 6.

{4} At the same place 14.

{5} See above all the extensive Arab history of the literary sources, in which the Lebanese hold nearly a third of the total number of Arab authors (Y. A. Daghir, Masadir al-dirasa l-adabiyya - Sources of literary studies, Beirut ²1983); S. Kh. Jayyusi, Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poertry (Leiden 1977).

{6} See N. Harfusch, Al-Hudur al-lubnani fi l-alam - The Lebanese presence in the world (Jounieh 1974).

{7} At the same place 9.

{8} M. Abbud, Ruwwad al-nahda l-haditha - The pioneers of the modern Renaissance (Beirut 1952) 19.

{9} See at the same place 21 and R. G. Khoury, Bibliographie raisonné des traductions publiées au Liban (Paris 1966) 7, 12.

{10} See R. G. Khoury, Die arabischen literarischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen, unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Ilias von Homer, in: Nubia et Oriens Christianus (FS C. Detlef G. Müller, Köln 1988) 163-180).

{11} Marun Abbud, al-Madjmua al-kamila, complete works, I. 393.

{12} See P. Raphaël, Le rôle du Collège Maronite Romain dans l´orientalisme aux XVII et XVIII siècles (Beirut 1950).

{13} See R. G. Khoury, La culture au Liban: le plus sûr garant de la survie du pays - The culture in Lebanon: The most certain guarantee for the surviving of the country (FS Farid Jabre, Beirut 1989) 99-113.

{14} See R. G. Khoury, Djubran Khalil Djubran, Passé et Présent de la Culture Arabe ou Tradition, Modernité et Conservation d´Identité, selon Djubran Khalil Djubran (1883-1931, à l´image de la Renaissance Européenne. (Edingen-Neckarhausen 1997).



{15} See R. G. Khoury, Mayy Ziyada (1886-1941) entre la Tradition et la Modernité. Ou le Renouvellement des Perspectives Culturelles et Sociales dans son Œuvre, à l´image de l´Europe (Edingen-Neckarhausen 2003).

{16} See M. Miegel, Epochenwende. Gewinnt der Westen die Zukunft? (Berlin 1005).

{17} About the system of education see R. G. Khoury, Die Bedeutung des mittelalterlichen islamischen Bildungssystems als Vermittler zwischen der griechischen Antike u. der Neuzeit, in: Der Odem des Menschen ist eine Leuchte des Herrn. Aharon Agus zum Gedenken. hg. v. R. Reichman (Heidelberg 2006) 229-250.

{18} See R. G. Khoury, Le pouvoir suprême de la langue et de la culture, in: Dieu et le droit à la différence. Kolloquium der Université Saint-Esprit, Annales de Philosophie et des Sciences Humaines, No. 21, volume 1, Jounieh 2005 / 6, 167-212.


    {*} Christians from Lebanon played a key role in modern time not only in the development of their own country, but also in the entire Arab and Islamic world. RAIF GEORGES KHOURY, professor of Islam science at the Heidelberg University, follows these influences and relates them to the current situation in Lebanon.


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