Carmel in the World
2018. Volume LVII, Number 2

  • The Place of Mary in Carmelite Spirituality
  • Céline Martin – ‘Sweet Echo’ of St Thérèse’s Soul
  • Isidore Bakanja and the Spirituality of Social Justice (below)
  • Applying St Teresa of Avila’s Counsels on Prayer in the Twenty-first Century
  • Carmel and Music VII: Benedictus of St Joseph (Buns), O.Carm.
  • Living Carmelite Spirituality amidst the Challenges of our Contemporary Times
  • Marian Spirituality within the Carmelite Tradition. Part I
  • Carmel Around the World

Isidore Bakanja and the Spirituality of Social Justice

François Hubert Manga, O.Carm., is from Cameroon and is currently studying in the Netherlands.

The Boangi tribe, in the eastern part of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, holds the origins of Isidore Bakanja, whose name has several varieties including Bokando, Makando or Makanda. Regarding his family, we know that his father, Iyonzwa, and his mother, Inyka, were pagans and lived off the produce of their work in farming and fishing. Bakanja was born at Bokendela on an unknown day between 1884 and 1885. Bokendala is a small village in the deep equatorial rain forest, not very far from the Botato stream, one of the branches of the big and famous Congo River. The daily life of people here consists of working on farms, fishing and growing up in a wide family network. The family, in fact, is very important in those regions because a relative was able to host and help many other members of the family and gave them a chance to find a job in other villages or towns, or even to embrace the faith. That’s why, like many other teens of his village, Bakanja had to face the challenge of fighting against the dangerous and powerful floods of the Congo River, the longest river in Africa after the Nile. With some hidden anxieties and apprehensions for the unknown venture, the young Bakanja left Bokendela on a small wooden boat to look for a job at Mbandaka, also called Coquihatville. In this he encountered the reality of the political situation and the work of the missionaries.

Remote Carmelite seeds in Africa
The earliest Carmelite spirit was already present in Africa from the time of Elijah the prophet, who came to Mount Horeb in the land of Egypt (1Kings 19). In modern times signs of the Carmelite presence in Africa can be found closer to our time. Teresa of Avila’s missionary spirit was not confined to her Spanish countrymen but was open to all peoples and so she was very happy to know that some Spanish friars were to be sent to the African continent to spread the Carmelite spirit. With the agreement, encouragement and practical arrangements of the Provincial, Fr Jerome Gracian, a foundation was established at Lisbon in Portugal which came about when the King of Spain became the sovereign of Portugal. On the ship, the São Antonio, Fr Anthony of the Mother of God and some friars, set out from Lisbon to the Kingdom of the Congo on April 5, 1582.
The first expedition was unsuccessful following an accident on the way. The second group of five friars departed a year later, again from Lisbon and for the same Congolese Kingdom, but they were caught by English pirates near Cap-Vert Islands. The third trip set out on April 10, 1584, and succeeded in reaching the African shores. They arrived at São Tome in July and took the River Congo to Luanda and continued from there by foot. They arrived at M’banza Kongo in November of the same year but didn’t stay very long. Here, Fr Diego of the Holy Sacrament, Fr Diego of the Incarnation, and Br Francis of Jesus planted the seed of Carmel. In more recent times, Carmel has been re-establised in 1934 in black Africa at Kabwe in the Kasayi region before being transferred to Kananga Malole. Today, the indubitable record sees a wide presence in many countries. The message of the Brown Scapular that brightened Bakanja’s life at the beginning of the twentieth century, became a seed that silently grew to become a star on the African Carmelite horizon.

Hazardous encounter with the Faith
When the young Bakanja left his village in 1904, his intention was not to join a group of Christians. With all those who were with him, he simply wanted to prepare for the future and to lead a normal human life according to the criteria of his times. He needed a job, he wanted to establish a family, and to have enough resources to help his parents and increase the quality of his life. But, at that time, the Church already had many deep roots in the social fabric of society. Bakanja experienced God’s presence while seeking friends in a foreign place. He wanted to feel accepted and to meet new people during his free time. At that time, he made contact with a group of people who followed the teachings of a catechist. He quickly accepted the joyful message of the Gospel which matches with the words of the prophet to whom God said: ‘before your birth, I knew you and choose you to go and be my servant’ (Jeremiah 1:5). In this simple group, the doors of faith were opened for Bakanja.

The Catechism
The catechism is a very important instrument of the Church and all its members. As St Augustine said: ‘it’s good to know in order to believe and to believe in order to know’. This is appropriate because listening to God and his words is the key attitude of faith. For everybody – for believers and those who wish to join the Christian family – it’s important for all to be taught and to be able to give acceptable justifications of one’s faith. This is not only for those who are training for one of the seven Sacraments, but it is also recommended for deepening the faith and its mystery within the Church.
The first step in the faith is Baptism which is the first sacrament that opens the doors of faith, gives the grace of spiritual rebirth and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Assisted by Linganga, the first Christian he met, Bakanja began his training under the guidance of Fr Gregory Van Dun and Fr Roberts Brepols, two Cistercian monks who were running St Eugen’s Parish in Bolokwa Nsimba, not far from Mbandaka. The content of the training was the Sign of the Cross, the usual prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary and many others), the Creed and its explanation, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the rules of the Church, the Seven Deadly Sins and so on. The programme also included attendance at Mass, some devotional prayers (the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, the Angelus) and many Christian songs translated into the local languages or adapted in the spirit of the place.
In this work the missionaries didn’t only stop at what their Order’s or Congregation’s concerns were, but were very pleased to use as much of the richness of the Church and the faith as possible. That was why the Cistercians gave the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to all the newly baptised after a serious training, and even registered the owners in a book. This is a sign of a good and open spirit by those leading the work. The openness is a clear understanding of and love for the spiritual richness of the Church.

After a long period of training lasting up to three years, Bakanja was placed under the patronage and protection of St Isidore. Bakanja himself was fully conscious of his choice and of the ceremony. The responsibility was not only on Boniface’s shoulders, Bakanja himself had agreed to accept the duties of the Christian life, and this was a remote agreement for his later baptism: his martyrdom. As was usual in many parishes in various places, the newly baptised were automatically enrolled in the Scapular Confraternity regardless of age, something the Cistercian monks also carried out, and that is how Isidore Bakanja received the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In the local language, it’s known as Bonkoto Malia, Mary’s dress. Baptism is the first sacrament and it opens the door to the others. Isidore Bakanja was now a Christian and his engagement was obvious. On May 25, 1906, the feast of the Carmelite St Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi, Isidore received the holy anointment in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Through the chrismation, he became a true soldier of Christ, now able to defend his faith himself, and the Church, to the death. A year later, on August 8, 1907, he received his friend and Saviour in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Now Isidore had all the equipment required for a mature follower of Jesus. He was anointed and fed by Christ himself.

The Scapular
Just after baptism, Isidore Bakanja received the Brown Scapular and was enrolled in the Confraternity of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Clothed with this spiritual garment, he would nourish his faith by the daily recitation of the Rosary, through mental prayer, through meditation on the Scriptures and through participation in the life of a Christian group with a true desire for fraternity. Even at that time, the Marian devotions and prayer of the Rosary were encouraged as genuine expressions of the Catholic faith. Nowadays this is still visible even with many key figures in the Church such as Pope St John Paul II, who always wore his Scapular and sometimes showed it to others as an example of a pious life under the maternal protection of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. For eight hundred years, the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been the pride of the Carmelite Order and the whole Church. From the vision of St Simon Stock, who received the Scapular with all its promises, the development of the devotion surrounding the Scapular has continually grown. The Scapular – made of two small pieces of cloth linked by two small strings – is the reduction of the scapular of the Carmelite habit, on which it is quite visible. From the beginning, the scapular on the religious habit was an item of work clothing, but in Carmel, the Brown Scapular has become the sign of the protection of the Virgin Mary, the proof of belonging to the Carmelite Family, the outward sign of an inner desire to follow its charism through the examples of its saints and great figures. Anyone who receives the Scapular is to imitate the example of the Mother of God, following a pious life of prayer, meditating on the Word of God and living a life of charity, service and fraternity. The Brown Scapular is a very helpful sacramental in the Church.

The Faith in common life
The newly baptised Isidore Bakanja didn’t complete his journey to God only at the level of his Confirmation (November 25, 1906) or at his first Communion (August 8, 1907). One can even say that the sacraments were not his goal. He devoted himself to a life of sanctification and followed the light given through the Carmelite spirituality of the Brown Scapular. And so he dedicated himself to working as a catechist because he wanted to work in God’s vineyard, and so he did. By his teachings, he helped many other people to come to Jesus and, as he knew the language much better than the missionaries, he explained the mysteries of the faith. By the example of his daily life, he showed them that honesty, work well done, and love for all as some of the qualities of a good friend of Jesus Christ. He demonstrated to others that a faithful spiritual life prayer is the soil in which this exemplary behaviour grows.

The witness of Isidore Bakanja

The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially the holy Eucharist, that charity towards God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. Now the laity is called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them it can become the salt of the earth.[1]

Our own times requires of the laity no less zeal: in fact, modern conditions demand that their apostolate be broadened and intensified. With a constantly increasing population, continual progress in science and technology, and closer interpersonal relationships, the areas for the lay apostolate have been immensely widened particularly in fields that have been for the most part open to the laity alone.[2]

With these two texts the Second Vatican Council underlines the important role of lay people in the Church. This was a big point for Isidore who, many decades before, understood the role of the laity in the Church. His personal experience and training gave him enough skills to be a model and a teacher in his time.

The laity are to be helped to become increasingly aware of their role in the Church, thereby fulfilling their particular mission as baptised and confirmed persons, according to the teaching of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici and the Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio.[3]

This was already found in Isidore Bakanja, and it is a sign of God’s grace.

Spirituality of the work and justice
In the life of Isidore Bakanja there is an important place for work and justice, and this is not usual in the African context. Cultural and historical reasons make talking of work and its rights a big challenge. Isidore’s experience is helpful because it gives a particular place to the sense of work. Work is not a punishment given by God to the human as is said in many places. Work is, on the contrary, the collaborative participation of the human in creation that is permanently to be done.
Deeper still, the French author, Pierre Corneille, said that work keeps us away from three troubles: sinful tendencies, ennui or boredom, and need. Salary is not always what is important, but there is great pleasure for somebody when he is doing his work like an artist. This was Isidore’s position who saw his job like that of an artist. He said it when he answered Van Cauter (Longange), his boss: ‘I always do very well all that I have to do, and what does it lack anything?’ For him, salary was not the goal, and it’s a serious message for the ideology of money. Isidore was not ready to sacrifice his faith for his job. He gave to each dimension its place and did everything with dedication. The spirituality of work, as part of the social teaching of the Church, is therefore in keeping with Isidore’s view: feeding work with spiritual elements or opening one’s work to spirituality. Isidore allows us to see the bridge that links our motivation and occupation. Some social deviations such as corruption, abuse of workers, poor working conditions and exploitation, are to be rooted out. Without being aware of it, Isidore gave an echo of the first ever Encyclical Letter on the Social Teaching of the Church: Rerum Novarum, by Pope Leo XIII (1891). Many other texts of the Church would follow and support Isidore’s actions in fighting for the rights of everybody, especially workers and their freedom. We can include Pacem in Terris of John XXIII (1963); Populorum Progressio of Paul VI (1967); Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991) of John Paul II; Caritas in Veritate (2009) of Benedict XVI; and also a large chapter of Evangelii Gaudium (2013) of Pope Francis. In Isidore’s experience, we also discover that not all European men were wicked, in fact Longage, his torturer, would be sent to trial by Dorpinhaus, the general controller, for wrongful treatment of others.
The spirituality of work is also to imitate God by setting aside for one’s self a time for rest. In many industrialised countries and even in developing ones, governments are encouraging people to work more in order to gain more. This is good but can quickly become a modern figure of money’s slavery. Working more is good, but, like God, once a week or regularly, it’s good to have a period of rest. If mechanical engines break down because of age and fatigue, what about human beings? The replacement of one part of the human body is not like repairing a car. Human life is to be respected, to be taken care of, and to be loved. In his time, Isidore Bakanja was already highlighting one of the major vocations of the Carmelite Family: the promotion of justice, peace and integrity of creation.

The glory of martyrdom
The life of Isidore Bakanja wasn’t without difficulties. He felt that things had changed but he also understood that the best place to hide oneself was in God’s hands by a complete abandonment to God. This experience is very relevant because it presents the importance of certain attitudes. The first is humility. Isidore could easily cease being conscientious in his job and take on wicked ways. But, by imitating the Virgin Mary, he remained humble and respectful towards everyone. Humility helps to know that everything comes from God and sets us on the path of living in a spirit of thanksgiving. The second major point that comes from the abandonment to God is faith. One can never put all their trust in the Lord’s hands unless one has faith. As one of the three theological virtues, faith places the human being before God and strengthens the confidence in oneself and in God also. Isidore Bakanja was a man of faith. From his baptism, he determined to give his life to God. This young man of God was sure of God’s promises. Isidore’s faith opened him up to hope and charity. Isidore fed his spiritual life at the spring of the sacraments and, because of his faith, he trusted in God and surrendered his life to God’s holy hands.
The third key point that’s linked to self-renunciation is happiness. Joy is the global positive attitude of the genuine believer and true evangeliser. Isidore experienced this deeply and can teach us that

an evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelising, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelisers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ”.[4]

With Isidore Bakanja, joy was always present and is a sign of the work of salvation made by Jesus in his life.

Persecution for the Faith
In the twenty-first century, as in Isidore Bakanja’s time, those who are called Christian are facing big challenges because, in our world, those who want to remain faithful to Jesus and his redeeming message, have to fight. Today’s world doesn’t want to talk or listen about values. Families, social institutions such as schools, and even spiritual communities such as parishes, are attacked. There is no consideration for human life, forgiveness is seen as a sign of weakness and there is no longer any pity. Personal and egotistic interest are the mottos and there is no joy for people. In the face of many other problems, such as wars in their various forms, witchcraft, hypocrisy and violence, the first answer we can hear is always ‘forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). Isidore Bakanja’s life was therefore very up to date as it consistently demonstrated the reality of joy and forgiveness in the midst of hard suffering. He received from it the grace of discovering the power of the spiritual life that comes from forgiveness, mediated by our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, on the Cross. Bakanja also occupied himself with the salvation of those who actively participated in his persecution, particularly his patron, and he promised that ‘once in heaven, I’ll pray for him, I’ll pray a lot for him’. These words are completely miraculous. Isidore, while still crying because of the painful wounds he received after been beaten several times, was able to forgive, and to give himself for the salvation of not only his boss, but also all those heartless others who tortured their brothers and sisters because of their faith in God. This is a very big sign of the times and testimony of the power of love.

Martyrdom is not a remote concept but can be seen in every century. Isidore’s example is a calling to us in our day and time. After being an assistant mason in house construction for the Belgian workers at Mbandaka, Bakanja returned to his village. Sometime later, he transferred to Busira-Lokumo. He stayed with Camille Boyna, his nephew, and worked for the SAB (Société Anonyme Belge) as a servant-boy or domestic. It was from Busira that he would go with his employer to Ikili, were he was persecuted and martyred. His employer, Van Cauter, asked him to remove his Brown Scapular because the Belgian didn’t appreciate the work of the missionaries. The priests emancipated villagers while the businessmen wanted them to remain ignorant and wild, so that they could exploit them with impunity and without fear. Along with evangelisation work in the schools, the missionaries helped the indigenous people to learn their rights and even the language (French). Isidore refused to obey such injunctions. The second reason for Longange’s anger was the fact that many local collaborators accompanied priests in their work, among them Isidore. On February 2, 1909, Isidore Bakanja was severely beaten with leather straps that carried old nails. Longange himself said to Isidore:

I’m thrashing you because you are teaching the stupid priests’ prayers and all sorts of stupidities to my workers, to my servant-boys, and even to the villagers. If that does not stop, one will not want to work anymore for me because of the stories of stupid priests.

When Longange heard that a mission of inspection was on the way, he forced Isidore to go to another place in order to be hidden. Isidore told him that he could not move because of his wounds. Confronted with the fury of Longange, Isidore went away, but had to stop in the forest not far from the village. Where there are persecutors, there are also defenders of the martyrs. Iyongo, for example, helped Isidore to hide himself beneath the trees and brought him food and clothes. Moya Mputsu is another name that stands out: on February 6, he is known to have shown Isidore to Inspector Dorpinghaus. As a result of his injuries, Isidore died six months later on the August 15, 1909, at Busira.

Spiritual resistance
The wicked attitude of many white men was so obvious that it was very difficult to work with them. They didn’t consider other people or see villagers as human beings, but generally adopted an anti-religious mindset. Isidore, before going at Ikili, received warnings from his nephew not to go with Longanga, who was widely known as a wicked man. The evidence held up. Some days later Isidore was ordered to stop his public witness of the Catholic faith. He refused. Then the employer said that if he refused to change, he would be dismissed. At that point Isidore said that he needed a document from the boss. Longange said he could never give him such a paper. Finally, Isidore called to mind the answer of Peter and John to the Jews: ‘which is right in God’s sight, to obey you or to obey God?’ (Acts 4:19). Isidore decided to obey his inner voice, that of his spiritual convictions, the voice of God. He then discovered that obeying God gave power and strength. He was sustained by the spirit of God, who worked silently in his heart and mind. The community also helped him. As he was not the first to face such difficult situations, like Pierre Yanza who had also been persecuted as a catechist, Isidore established a circle of Christians who were ready to help, to bring food, to heal wounds and pray together. These two elements are very important for spiritual resistance at a time of difficulties and persecutions. It’s very good to be influenced every day by our faith because

God wants his children to be happy in this world too, even though they are called to fulfilment in eternity, for he has created all things ‘for our enjoyment’ (1Timothy 6:17), the enjoyment of everyone. It follows that Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good’.[5]

Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.[6]

Prayer with the community overcomes pain
This point has a particular place in the life of Isidore and his experience. The intercession of the community was not only that of words, but also material sustainment. Isidore discovered in this the importance of the community of brothers and sisters around Jesus. They don’t stop the path of union with God by their actions. On the contrary, their role appears as a significant help in fulfilling God’s will.

On the way to Canonisation
Here, the aim is to go through the official Church recognition of Isidore Bakanja’s sacrifice and example for Christians all over the world, like many other saints and blesseds who, by their daily spiritual resistance, brought the Light to the hearts of all, both victims and torturers, in the name of forgiveness and Jesus’ love. Isidore ended his life by giving his life to God with his death on August 15, 1909. He was, in a way, helped by those who at that time thought they were removing the bad seed. In the midst of very difficult and horrible pain, Isidore felt very close to Jesus, his secret friend, and, with an invisible source of courage, he forgave his torturers and, from this present world, gathered his friends around him to pray for the unbelievers. He comforted them with these words: ‘once in heaven, I will pray for them, I will pray a lot for them’. This is very far from a kind of justification of mistreatments, violence and injustices. On the contrary, Isidore, by his painful gift, cries to everyone: Jesus is still suffering when one human being is a victim of the darkness.
Bakanja also shows another side of missionary work. In fact, many historical resources say that missionaries were guilty of the exploitation of people in the colonies. This can be true in some cases but not in all. The missionaries also suffered from the bad conditions such as the difficulties of language, climate, food, travel, health and political factors. The missionaries were not happy tourists in those unknown parts of the world far away from their home countries, usually with a one-way travel ticket. Many of them died shortly, even just days after their arrival. Their work was not as easy as sometimes imagined. They had to learn the native languages. They needed to build suitable dwellings for themselves and the population. Churches, hospitals and schools are the result of their courageous engagement. This was not always easily seen by the colonisers. Isidore Bakanja helps us to make an important distinction between the colonisers and the missionaries. The first had political goals with particular methods employing violence and all kinds of abuses, and were not interested in learning the local language. On the contrary, they sought to bring their culture, including language, food, building methods and way of life to their new home. This was far from evangelisation. Many documents from Rome emphasise that missionary activities avoid the political way of action. The best known are the Instructio of the Propaganda Fidei (1659); the Apostolic Letter Maximum illud of Benedict XV (1919); the Encyclical Letter Rerum Ecclesiae of Pius XI (1926); the Encyclical Letters Evangelii praecones (1951) and Fidei donum (1957) of Pius XII. Pope John XXIII wrote the Encyclical Letter Princeps Pastorum (1959), while Saint John Paul II wrote the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990). These documents and many others on the same topics show that even if the missionaries and the colonisers came from the same countries, the job was not the same. The Trappist Monks who baptised Isidore and many others were not at all appreciated because the colonisers said they opened the mind of the population and so they became aware of their rights and were no longer as obedient as in the beginning. Others think Isidore Bakanja wanted us to avoid generalisations. Not all white men agreed with the difficult and inhuman conditions of the workers. Van Cauter had been dismissed and his actions judged by other Belgians. Thinking that sin is everywhere is a lack of faith.
After a long and very painful battle against hate, vengeance and suffering, on July 24, 1906, Isidore, accompanied by many others, received the Sacrament of the Anointment of the Sick, and the holy Eucharist (Viaticum) as food for the way, and, less than three weeks later, he entered into eternal rest. On the occasion of the opening of the Special Synod of Africa in Rome, with the proposal and strong support of the General Council of the Carmelite Order, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 21, 1994. From that official recognition of this heroic life and message, Bakanja is celebrated within the Carmelite Family every August 12 as the martyr of the Brown Scapular.

The human dreams of God’s will
The young Isidore had to put aside his dreams and, like the Virgin Mary, he submitted his life to God’s will. He did this not by force, but with real willingness and pleasure. In fact, when he left his lovely village of Bokendela, he wanted nothing more than a job, earning enough money to organise his life and helping his loved ones. But even before he started to realise fully what he planned to do, his path met God’s path. From then on, nothing was the same again. He didn’t stop his journey, but he had another view on it. He lived differently, with more serenity, and happiness. Isidore Bakanja was not about to give up because he joined a catechist group, because he was engaged in his parish or because of his enrolment in the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel through receiving the Brown Scapular. On the contrary, all these new elements of his life gave him a real pride to be what he had newly discovered: a Christian. Bakanja, in his way of acceptance of God’s action in his life, testifies that everything done by God is good for his son or daughter. This is not a kind of resignation as if he was obliged to follow it. The possibility of choice is always open – this is free will. Isidore made the choice to work with God, surely he knew that ‘everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, for fear his actions should be exposed; but the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God’ (John 3:20-21). Isidore had discovered the light of all nations and followed it. In the end, he had also been transformed in light and now he is shining for our generations in the Church and in the world.

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[1]     Lumen gentium, 32.
[2]     Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1.
[3]     John Paul II: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, 90.
[4]     Evangelii Gaudium, 10.
[5]     John Paul II: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America, no. 27.
[6]     Evangelii Gaudium, 182-183.

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