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A Christian denomination is an identifiable religious body under a common name, structure, and doctrine within Christianity. In the Orthodox tradition, churches are divided often along ethnic and linguistic lines, into separate churches and traditions. Technically, divisions between one group and another are defined by doctrine and church authority. Issues such as the nature of Jesus, the authority of apostolic succession, eschatology, and papal primacy separate one denomination from another.
The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination with over 1.1 billion members, over half of all Christians worldwide, making it the world's second largest religious denomination after Sunni Islam (although the church does not view itself as a denomination, but as the original pre-denominational church). Protestant denominations comprise roughly 38–39% of Christians worldwide, and together the Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and other closely related denominations comprise Western Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East are considered Eastern Christian denominations. Western Christian denominations prevail in Western Europe and its former colonies. Eastern Christian denominations are represented mostly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Christians have various doctrines about the Church, the body of faithful that they believe was established by Jesus Christ, and how the divine church corresponds to Christian denominations. Both the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox consider each of themselves solely to faithfully represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the exclusion of the other. Protestants separated from the Catholic Church because of theologies and practices that they considered to be in violation of their interpretation. Generally, members of the various denominations acknowledge each other as Christians, at least to the extent that they have mutually recognized baptisms and acknowledge historically orthodox views including the Divinity of Jesus and doctrines of sin and salvation, even though doctrinal and ecclesiological obstacles hinder full communion between churches.
Since the reforms surrounding Vatican II, the Catholic Church has referred to Protestant communities as "denominations", while reserving the term "church" for apostolic churches, including the Eastern Orthodox (see subsistit in and branch theory). There are however some non-denominational Christians who do not follow any particular branch.
Christianity has denominational families (or movements) and also has individual denominations (or communions). Within these denominational families and movements are (often further denominational families and) various individual denominations or communions. The difference between a denomination and a denominational family is sometimes unclear to outsiders. Some denominational families can be considered major branches.
Christianity is composed of, but not limited to, five major branches of Churches: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant (some groupings include Anglicans amongst Protestants). The Assyrian Church of the East is also a distinct Christian body, but is much smaller in adherents and geographic scope now than in the past. Each of these six branches has important subdivisions. Because the Protestant subdivisions do not maintain a common theology or earthly leadership, they are far more distinct than the subdivisions of the other five groupings. Denomination typically refers to one of the many Christian groupings including each of the multitude of Protestant subdivisions.
Denominationalism is an ideology which views some or all Christian groups as being, in some sense, versions of the same thing regardless of their distinguishing labels. Not all churches teach this. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches do not use this term as its implication of interchangeability does not agree with their theological teachings. There are some groups which practically all others would view as apostate or heretical, and not legitimate versions of Christianity.
There were some movements considered heresies by the early church which do not exist today and are not generally referred to as denominations. Examples include the Gnostics (who had believed in an esoteric dualism called gnosis), the Ebionites (who denied the divinity of Jesus), and the Arians (who subordinated the Son to the Father by denying the pre-existence of Christ, thus placing Jesus as a created being), Bogumilism and Bosnian Church. The greatest divisions in Christianity today, however, are between Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and various denominations formed during and after the Protestant Reformation. There also exists in Protestantism and Orthodoxy various degrees of unity and division.
Comparisons between denominational churches must be approached with caution. For example, in some churches, congregations are part of a larger church organization, while in other groups, each congregation is an independent autonomous organization. This issue is further complicated by the existence of groups of congregations with a common heritage that are officially nondenominational and have no centralized authority or records, but which are identified as denominations by non-adherents. Study of such churches in denominational terms is therefore a more complex proposition.
Some groups count membership based on adult believers and baptized children of believers, while others only count adult baptized believers. Others may count membership based on those adult believers who have formally affiliated themselves with the congregation. In addition, there may be political motives of advocates or opponents of a particular group to inflate or deflate membership numbers through propaganda or outright deception.
Christianity has not been a monolithic faith since the first century or Apostolic Age, if ever, and today there exist a large variety of groups that share a common history and tradition within and without mainstream Christianity. Since Christianity is the largest religion in the world (making up approximately one-third of the population), it is necessary to understand the various faith traditions in terms of commonalities and differences between tradition, theology, church government, doctrine, language, and so on.
The largest schism or division in many classification schemes is between the families of Eastern and Western Christianity. After these two larger families come distinct branches of Christianity. Most classification schemes list six (in order of size: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Church of the East, which was originally referred to as Nestorianism but in modern times is embodied by the Assyrian Church of the East).
Unlike Roman Catholicism, Protestantism is a general movement that has no universal governing authority. As such, diverse groups such as Adventists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Binitarians, Charismatics, Congregationalists, Evangelicals, Holiness churches, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Unitarians (depending on one's classification scheme) are all a part of the same family but have distinct doctrinal variations within each group. From these come denominations, which in the West, have independence from the others in their doctrine.
The Eastern and Roman Catholic churches, due to their hierarchical structures, are not said to be made up of denominations, rather, they include kinds of regional councils and individual congregations and church bodies, which do not officially differ from one another in doctrine.
The initial differences between the East and West traditions stem from socio-cultural and linguistic divisions in and between the Western Roman and Byzantine Empires. Since the West (that is, Western Europe) spoke Latin as its lingua franca and the East (Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and northern Africa) largely used Koine Greek to transmit writings, theological developments were difficult to translate from one branch to the other. In the course of ecumenical councils (large gatherings of Christian leaders), some church bodies split from the larger family of Christianity. Many earlier heretical groups either died off for lack of followers and/or suppression by the church at large (such as Apollinarians, Montanists, and Ebionites).
The first significant, lasting split in historic Christianity came from the Church of the East, who left following the Christological controversy over Nestorianism in 431 (the Assyrians in 1994 released a common Christological statement with the Roman Catholic Church). Today, the Assyrian and Roman Catholic Church view this schism as largely linguistic, due to problems of translating very delicate and precise terminology from Latin to Aramaic and vice-versa (see Council of Ephesus). Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the next large split came with the Syrian and Alexandrian (Egyptian or Coptic) churches dividing themselves, with the dissenting churches becoming today's Oriental Orthodoxy. (A similar Christological statement was made between Pope John Paul II and Syriac patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, as well as between representatives of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.)
There has been a claim that the Chalcedonian Creed restored Nestorianism, however this is refuted by maintaining the following distinctions associated with the person of Christ: two hypostases, two natures (Nestorian); one hypostasis, one nature (Monophysite); one hypostasis, two natures (Orthodox/Catholic).
Although the church as a whole did not experience any major divisions for centuries afterward, the Eastern and Western groups drifted until the point where patriarchs from both families excommunicated one another in about 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism. The political and theological reasons for the schism are complex, but one major controversy was the inclusion and acceptance in the West of the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, which the East viewed as erroneous. Another was the definition of papal primacy.
Both West and East agreed that the patriarch of Rome was owed a "primacy of honour" by the other patriarchs (those of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem), but the West also contended that this primacy extended to jurisdiction, a position rejected by the Eastern patriarchs. Various attempts at dialogue between the two groups would occur, but it was only in the 1960s, under Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, that significant steps began to be made to mend the relationship between the two.
In Western Christianity, there were a handful of geographically isolated movements that preceded the spirit of the Protestant Reformation. The Cathars were a very strong movement in medieval southwestern France, but did not survive into modern times. In northern Italy and southeastern France, Peter Waldo founded the Waldensians in the 12th century. This movement has largely been absorbed by modern-day Protestant groups. In Bohemia, a movement in the early 15th century by Jan Hus called the Hussites defied Roman Catholic dogma and still exists to this day (alternately known as the Moravian Church).
The Protestant Reformation began with the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses in Saxony on October 31, 1517, written as a set of grievances to reform the pre-Reformation Western Church. Luther's writings, combined with the work of Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli and French theologian and politician John Calvin sought to reform existing problems in doctrine and practice. Due to the reactions of ecclesiastical office holders at the time of the reformers, the Roman Catholic Church separated from them, instigating a rift in Western Christianity.
In England, Henry VIII of England declared himself to be supreme head of the Church of England with the Act of Supremacy in 1531, founding the Church of England, repressing both Lutheran reformers and those loyal to the pope. Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury introduced the Reformation, in a form compromising between the Calvinists and Lutherans.
The Old Catholic Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s because of the promulgation of the dogma of Papal Infallibility as promoted by the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870. The term 'Old Catholic' was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht that were not under Papal authority. The Old Catholic movement grew in America but has not maintained ties with Utrecht, although talks are under way between independent Old Catholic bishops and Utrecht.
The Liberal Catholic Church started in 1916 via an Old Catholic bishop in London, bishop Matthew, who consecrated bishop James Wedgwood to the Episcopacy. This stream has in its relatively short existence known many splits, which operate worldwide under several names.
In the Eastern world, the largest body of believers in modern times is the Eastern Orthodox Church, sometimes imprecisely called "Greek Orthodox" because from the time of Christ through the Byzantine empire, Greek was the common language (Greek Orthodox actually refers to only one portion of the entire Orthodox Church). The Eastern Orthodox Church believes itself to be the continuation of the original Christian church established by Jesus Christ, and the Apostles.
They consider themselves to be spiritually one body while administratively they are grouped into several autocephalous councils. They do not recognize any single bishop as universal church leader, but rather each bishop governs only his own diocese. The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, and holds the title "first among equals" meaning only that if a great council is called, the Patriarch sits as president of the council. He has no more power than any other bishop. Currently, the largest synod with the most members is the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches are organized in a similar manner, with six national autocephalous groups and two autonomous bodies. Although the region of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea has had a strong body of believers since the infancy of Christianity, these regions only gained autocephaly in 1963 and 1994 respectively. Since these groups are relatively obscure in the West, literature on them has sometimes included the Assyrian Church of the East as a part of the Oriental Orthodox Communion, but the Assyrians have maintained theological, cultural, and ecclesiastical independence from all other Christian bodies since 431.
It is administered in a hierarchical model not entirely unlike the Catholic Church, with the head of the church being the Patriarch Catholicos of the Assyrian Church of the East, since 1976 HH Mar Dinkha IV. Due to oppression, the church's headquarters is in Chicago, Illinois, rather than the Middle East, though some believers remain there. Even within this small group, there was another split to the Ancient Church of the East, and a rival Catholicos (Patriarch) in California.
There are also the Eastern Catholic Churches, which are counterparts of the various Churches listed above, in that they preserve the same theological and liturgical traditions as they do. But they differ from their Orthodox mother Churches in that they recognize the Bishop of Rome as the universal head of the Church. Though adherents of Eastern Catholicism are fully part of the Catholic communion, most do not to use the term "Roman Catholic" to describe themselves, associating that name instead with members of the Latin Church. Rather, they prefer to use the name of whichever Church they belong to—Ukrainian Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, etc.
in English-speaking countries
The Latin portion of the Catholic Church, along with Anglicanism and Protestantism, comprise the three major divisions of Christianity in the Western world. Roman Catholics do not describe themselves as a denomination but rather as the original Holy and Universal Church; which all other branches broke off from in schism. The Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran churches are generally considered to be Protestant denominations, although strictly speaking, of these three, only the Lutherans took part in the official Protestation at Speyer after the decree of the Second Diet of Speyer mandated the burning of Luther's works and the end of the Protestant Reformation.
Anglicanism was generally classified as Protestant, but since the "Tractarian" or Oxford Movement of the 19th century, led by John Henry Newman, Anglican writers emphasize a more catholic understanding of the church and characterize it as more properly understood as its own tradition—a via media ("middle way"), both Protestant and Catholic. The American province of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church USA, describes itself as a modern via media church in this tradition. A case is sometimes also made to regard Lutheranism in a similar way, considering the catholic character of its foundational documents (the Augsburg Confession and other documents contained in the Book of Concord) and its existence prior to the Anglican, Anabaptist, and Reformed churches, from which nearly all other Protestant denominations derive.
One central tenet of Catholicism (whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and some other denominations), is its practice of Apostolic Succession. "Apostle" means "one who is sent out". Jesus commissioned the first twelve apostles (see Biblical Figures for the list of the Twelve), and they, in turn laid hands on subsequent church leaders to ordain (commission) them for ministry. In this manner, Roman Catholics and Anglicans trace their ordained ministers all the way back to the original Twelve.
Roman Catholics believe that the Pope has authority which can be traced directly to the apostle Peter whom they hold to be the original head of and first Pope of the Church. There are smaller churches, such as the Old Catholic Church which rejected the definition of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council, and Anglo-Catholics, Anglicans who believe that Anglicanism is a continuation of historical Catholicism and who incorporate many Catholic beliefs and practices. The Catholic Church refers to itself simply by the terms Catholic and Catholicism (which mean universal).
The Catholic Church has traditionally rejected any notion that those outside its communion can be regarded as part of any true Catholic Christian faith. Catholicism has a hierarchical structure in which supreme authority for matters of faith and practice are the exclusive domain of the Pope, who sits on the Throne of Peter, and the bishops when acting in union with him. Most Catholics are unaware of the existence of Old Catholicism which represents a relatively recent split from the Catholic Church and is particularly vocal in rejecting their use of the term Catholic.
Each Protestant movement has developed freely, and many have split over theological issues. For instance, a number of movements grew out of spiritual revivals, like Methodism and Pentecostalism. Doctrinal issues and matters of conscience have also divided Protestants. The Anabaptist tradition, made up of the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, rejected the Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of infant baptism; this tradition is also noted for its belief in pacifism.
Many churches with roots in Restorationism reject being identified as Protestant or even as a denomination at all, as they use only the Bible and not creeds, and model the church after what they feel is the first-century church found in scripture; the Churches of Christ are one example; African Initiated Churches, like Kimbanguism, mostly fall within Protestantism, with varying degrees of syncretism. The measure of mutual acceptance between the denominations and movements varies, but is growing largely due to the ecumenical movement in the 20th century and overarching Christian bodies such as the World Council of Churches.
One group which has maintained its Jewish identity alongside an acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and the New Testament as authoritative are Messianic Jews, also called Hebrew Christians. Since the founding of the church, there have been Jewish elements that wanted to retain their ethnic origins alongside the Gospel message. In fact, the first council was called in Jerusalem to address just this issue, and the deciding opinion was written by James the Just, the first bishop of Jerusalem and a pivotal figure in the Christian movement. Due to the entirely different history of such movements and groups, they defy any simple classification scheme.
The Nasrani or Syrian Malabar Nasrani community in Kerala, India is conscious of their Jewish origins. However, they have lost many of their Jewish traditions due to western influences. The Nasrani are also known as Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians. This is because they follow the traditions of Syriac Christianity and are descendants of the early converts by St. Thomas the Apostle. Today, they belong to various denominations of Christianity but they have kept their unique identity within each of these denominations.
An existing community that still maintain their Jewish traditions is the Knanaya. They are an endogamous sub-ethnic group among the Syrian Malabar Nasrani and are the descendants of early Jewish Christian settlers who arrived in Kerala in A.D 345. Although affiliated with a variety of Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox denominations, they have remained a cohesive community, shunning intermarriage with outsiders (but not with fellow-Knanaya of other denominations).
Some denominations which arose alongside the Western Christian tradition consider themselves Christian, but neither Roman Catholic nor wholly Protestant, such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Quakerism began as an evangelical Christian movement in 17th century England, eschewing priests and all formal Anglican or Roman Catholic sacraments in their worship, including many of those practices that remained among the stridently Protestant Puritans such as baptism with water. They were known in America for helping with the Underground Railroad, and like the Mennonites, Quakers traditionally refrain from participation in war. Other churches, such as Churches of Christ or the Plymouth Brethren reject formal ties with other churches within the movement.
Most Latter Day Saint denominations are derived from the Church of Christ (Latter Day Saints) established by Joseph Smith in 1830. The largest worldwide denomination, and the one publicly recognized as Mormonism, is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although there are various considerably smaller sects that broke from it after its relocation to the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1800s. Several of these broke away over the abandonment of practicing plural marriage after the 1890 Manifesto. Most of the "Prairie Saint" denominations (see below) were established after Smith's death by the remnants of the Latter Day Saints who did not go west with Brigham Young. Many of these opposed some of the 1840s theological developments in favor of 1830s theological understandings and practices. Other denominations are defined by either a belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet or acceptance of the Book of Mormon as scripture. Mormons generally consider themselves to be restorationist, believing that Smith, as prophet, seer, and revelator, restored the original and true Church of Christ to the earth. Some Latter Day Saint denominations are regarded by other Christians as being nontrinitarian or even non-Christian, but the Latter Day Saints are predominantly in disagreement with these claims. Mormons see themselves as believing in a Godhead comprising the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as separate personages united in purpose. Mormons regard traditional definitions of the Trinity as aberrations of true doctrine and emblematic of the Great Apostasy but they do not accept certain trinitarian definitions in the post-apostolic creeds, such as the Athanasian Creed.
The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1870) of the early 19th century. The movement sought to restore the church and "the unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament.":54 Members do not identify as Protestant but simply as Christian.:213
The Restoration Movement developed from several independent efforts to return to apostolic Christianity, but two groups, which independently developed similar approaches to the Christian faith, were particularly important.:27–32 The first, led by Barton W. Stone, began at Cane Ridge, Kentucky and called themselves simply as "Christians". The second began in western Pennsylvania and Virginia (now West Virginia) and was led by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell; they used the name "Disciples of Christ". Both groups sought to restore the whole Christian church on the pattern set forth in the New Testament, and both believed that creeds kept Christianity divided. In 1832 they joined in fellowship with a handshake.
Among other things, they were united in the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; that Christians should celebrate the Lord's Supper on the first day of each week; and that baptism of adult believers by immersion in water is a necessary condition for salvation. Because the founders wanted to abandon all denominational labels, they used the biblical names for the followers of Jesus.:27 Both groups promoted a return to the purposes of the 1st-century churches as described in the New Testament. One historian of the movement has argued that it was primarily a unity movement, with the restoration motif playing a subordinate role.:8
The Restoration Movement has since divided into multiple separate groups. There are three main branches in the US: the Churches of Christ, the Christian churches and churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Other U.S. based groups affiliated with the movement are the International Churches of Christ and the International Christian Churches. Non-U.S. groups include the Churches of Christ in Australia, the Evangelical Christian Church in Canada and the Churches of Christ in Europe.
Other groups originating during the Second Great Awakening include the Adventist movement, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science (which had roots in Congregationalism, but regarded itself as restorative). Each of these groups, founded within fifty years of one another, originally claimed to be an unprecedented, late restoration of the primitive Christian church. Some Baptist churches with Landmarkist views have similar beliefs concerning their connection with primitive Christianity.
Due to a number of similarities, some Protestant writers describe the doctrines of the Philippines originating Iglesia ni Cristo as restorationist in outlook and theme. INC, however, does not consider itself to be part of the Restoration Movement. On the other hand, some Catholic leaders viewed Iglesia ni Cristo as an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church, since the then first leader or Executive Minister (Felix Ysagun Manalo) was a former Catholic member. However, INC is working and functioning spiritually and financially on its own, thus, completely independent from any religious body and communion.
The church hierarchical administration (Filipino: Pamamahala), centralized church governance, theological orientation, places of worship architectural design, adaptation to modern technology, very strong and strict discipline, and country of origin or establishment, are some of the INC features, polity and organizational structure that identify itself different from Restoration Movement, Protestantism, Catholicism and mainstream Christianity. Iglesia ni Cristo members are noted for bloc voting in political elections which is unique to the church due to their doctrine on unity and a practice that cannot be found outside INC.
Another group of churches are known under the banner of "New Thought". These churches share a spiritual, metaphysical and mystical predisposition and understanding of the Bible and were strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist movement—particularly the work of Emerson. Another antecedent of this movement was Swedenborgianism, founded in 1787 on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have received a new revelation from Jesus Christ through continuous heavenly visions which he experienced over a period of at least twenty-five years.
The New Thought concept was named by Emma Curtis Hopkins ("teacher of teachers") after Hopkins broke off from Mary Baker Eddy's Church of Christ, Scientist—the movement had been previously known as the Mental Sciences. The New Thought movement includes Religious Science founded by Ernest Holmes; Divine Science, founded by Malinda Cramer and the Brook sisters; and Unity founded by Charles Fillmore and Myrtle Fillmore. The founders of these denominations all studied with Emma Curtis Hopkins. Each of one these New Thought Churches has been influenced by a wide variety of ancient spiritual ideas. Each of these churches identify to different degrees with Christianity, Unity and Divine Science being the most explicit in the use of the Bible.
The Christian Community is a movement for religious renewal. It was founded in 1922 in Switzerland by the Lutheran theologian and minister Friedrich Rittlemeyer, inspired by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and founder of anthroposophy. Christian Community congregations exist as financially independent groups with regional and international administrative bodies overseeing their work. There are approximately 350 worldwide. The international headquarters are in Berlin, Germany.
The Christian Community does not require its members to conform to any specific teaching or behaviour. Seven sacraments are celebrated within the Community: the Eucharist, generally called the Act of Consecration of Man, and six other sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, The Last Anointing, Sacramental Consultation (replacing Confession), and Ordination.
Many independent churches and movements considered themselves to be non-denominational, but may vary greatly in doctrine. Many of these, like the local churches movement, reflect the core teachings of traditional Christianity. Others however, such as The Way International, have been labelled as cults by mainstream Christians.
Two movements, which are entirely unrelated in their founding, but share a common element of an additional Messiah (or incarnation of Christ) are the Unification Church and the Rastafari movement. These movements fall outside of traditional taxonomies of Christian groups, though both cite the Christian Bible as a basis for their beliefs.
Syncretism of Christian beliefs with local and tribal religions is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the world. An example of this is the Native American Church. The ceremonies of this group are strongly tied to the use of peyote. (Parallels may be drawn here with the Rastafari spiritual use of cannabis.) While traditions vary from tribe to tribe, they often include a belief in Jesus as a Native American cultural hero, an intercessor for man, or a spiritual guardian; belief in the Bible; and an association of Jesus with peyote.
There are also some Christians that reject organized religion altogether. Some Christian anarchists believe that the original teachings of Jesus were corrupted by Roman statism (compare Early Christianity and State church of the Roman Empire), and that earthly authority such as government, or indeed the established Church, do not and should not have power over them. Following "The Golden Rule", many oppose the use of physical force in any circumstance, and advocate nonviolence. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote The Kingdom of God Is Within You, and was a Christian anarchist.
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