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Century of Light

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Century of Light

The twentieth century, the most turbulent in the history of the human race, has reached its end. Dismayed by the deepening moral and social chaos that marked its course, the generality of the world’s peoples are eager to leave behind them the memories of the suffering that these decades brought with them. No matter how frail the foundations of confidence in the future may seem, no matter how great the dangers looming on the horizon, humanity appears desperate to believe that, through some fortuitous conjunction of circumstances, it will nevertheless be possible to bend the conditions of human life into conformity with prevailing human desires.

In the light of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh such hopes are not merely illusory, but miss entirely the nature and meaning of the great turning point through which our world has passed in these crucial hundred years. Only as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

What makes this insight possible for us is the light shed by the rising Sun of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation and the influence it has come to exercise in human affairs. It is this opportunity that the following pages address.

I

Let us acknowledge at the outset the magnitude of the ruin that the human race has brought upon itself during the period of history under review. The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation—indeed, the abandonment—of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet—such are only the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past. Merely to mention them is to call to mind the Divine warnings expressed in Bahá’u’lláh’s words of a century ago: “O heedless ones! Though the wonders of My mercy have encompassed all created things, both visible and invisible, and though the revelations of My grace and bounty have permeated every atom of the universe, yet the rod with which I can chastise the wicked is grievous, and the fierceness of Mine anger against them terrible.”1

Lest any observer of the Cause be tempted to misunderstand such warnings as only metaphorical, Shoghi Effendi, drawing some of the historical implications, wrote in 1941:

A tempest, unprecedented in its violence, unpredictable in its course, catastrophic in its immediate effects, unimaginably glorious in its ultimate consequences, is at present sweeping the face of the earth. Its driving power is remorselessly gaining in range and momentum. Its cleansing force, however much undetected, is increasing with every passing day. Humanity, gripped in the clutches of its devastating power, is smitten by the evidences of its resistless fury. It can neither perceive its origin, nor probe its significance, nor discern its outcome. Bewildered, agonized and helpless, it watches this great and mighty wind of God invading the remotest and fairest regions of the earth, rocking its foundations, deranging its equilibrium, sundering its nations, disrupting the homes of its peoples, wasting its cities, driving into exile its kings, pulling down its bulwarks, uprooting its institutions, dimming its light, and harrowing up the souls of its inhabitants.2


From the point of view of wealth and influence, “the world” of 1900 was Europe and, by grudging concession, the United States. Throughout the planet, Western imperialism was pursuing among the populations of other lands what it regarded as its “civilizing mission”. In the words of one historian, the century’s opening decade appeared to be essentially a continuation of the “long nineteenth century”,3 an era whose boundless self-satisfaction was perhaps best epitomized by the celebration in 1897 of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, a parade that rolled for hours through the streets of London, with an imperial panoply and display of military power far surpassing anything attempted in past civilizations.

As the century began, there were few, whatever their degree of social or moral sensitivity, who perceived the catastrophes lying ahead, and few, if any, who could have conceived their magnitude. The military leadership of most European nations assumed that war of some kind would break out, but viewed the prospect with equanimity because of the twin fixed convictions that it would be short and would be won by their side. To an extent that seemed little short of miraculous, the international peace movement was enlisting the support of statesmen, industrialists, scholars, the media, and influential personalities as unlikely as the tsar of Russia. If the inordinate increase in armaments seemed ominous, the network of painstakingly crafted and often overlapping alliances seemed to give assurance that a general conflagration would be avoided and regional disputes settled, as they had been through most of the previous century. This illusion was reinforced by the fact that Europe’s crowned heads—most of them members of one extended family, and many of them exercising seemingly decisive political power—addressed one another familiarly by nicknames, carried on an intimate correspondence, married one another’s sisters and daughters, and vacationed together throughout long stretches of each year at one another’s castles, regattas and shooting lodges. Even the painful disparities in the distribution of wealth were being energetically—if not very systematically—addressed in Western societies through legislation designed to restrain the worst of the corporate freebooting of preceding decades and to meet the most urgent demands of growing urban populations.

The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. China, despite its ancient civilization and its sense of itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, had become the hapless victim of plundering by Western nations and by its modernizing neighbour Japan. The multitudes in India—whose economy and political life had fallen so totally under the domination of a single imperial power as to exclude the usual jockeying for advantage—escaped some of the worst of the abuses afflicting other lands, but watched impotently as their desperately needed resources were drained away. The coming agony of Latin America was all too clearly prefigured in the suffering of Mexico, large sections of which had been annexed by its great northern neighbour, and whose natural resources were already attracting the attention of avaricious foreign corporations. Particularly embarrassing from a Western point of view—because of its proximity to such brilliant European capitals as Berlin and Vienna—was the medieval oppression in which the hundred million nominally liberated serfs in Russia led lives of sullen, hopeless misery. Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished—starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.4

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned—but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants—were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilizing process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon—to be used, trained, exploited, Christianized, civilized, mobilized—as the shifting agendas of Western powers dictated. These agendas may have been harsh or mild in execution, enlightened or selfish, evangelical or exploitative, but were shaped by materialistic forces that determined both their means and most of their ends. To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

To point out the failings of a great civilization is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. Decades of experimentation had placed in their hands material means that were still beyond the appreciation of the rest of humanity. Throughout both Europe and America vast industries had risen, dedicated to metallurgy, to the manufacturing of chemical products of every kind, to textiles, to construction and to the production of instruments that enhanced every aspect of life. A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude—with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time—especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity. The “era of the railroad” was far advanced and steamships coursed the seaways of the world. With the proliferation of telegraph and telephone communication, Western society anticipated the moment when it would be freed of the limiting effects that geographical distances had imposed on humankind since the dawn of history.

Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionizing effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries. Such breakthroughs were encouraged—and their influence greatly amplified—by the fact that science had already changed from an activity of isolated thinkers to the systematically pursued concern of a large and influential international community enjoying the amenities of universities, laboratories and symposia for the exchange of experimental discoveries.

Nor was the strength of Western societies limited to scientific and technological advances. As the twentieth century opened, Western civilization was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world. It was a culture which nurtured constitutional government, prized the rule of law and respect for the rights of all of society’s members, and held up to the eyes of all it reached a vision of a coming age of social justice. If the boasts of liberty and equality that inflated patriotic rhetoric in Western lands were a far cry from conditions actually prevailing, Westerners could justly celebrate the advances toward those ideals that had been accomplished in the nineteenth century.

From a spiritual perspective the age was gripped by a strange, paradoxical duality. In almost every direction the intellectual horizon was darkened by clouds of superstition produced by unthinking imitation of earlier ages. For most of the world’s peoples, the consequences ranged from profound ignorance about both human potentialities and the physical universe, to naïve attachment to theologies that bore little or no relation to experience. Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population. At the deepest level—because religion’s influence reaches far into the human psyche and claims for itself a unique kind of authority—religious prejudices in all lands had kept alive in successive generations smouldering fires of bitter animosity that would fuel the horrors of the coming decades.5

II

On this landscape of false confidence and deep despair, of scientific enlightenment and spiritual gloom, there appeared, as the twentieth century opened, the luminous figure of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. The journey that had brought Him to this pivotal moment in the history of humankind had led through more than fifty years of exile, imprisonment and privation, hardly a month having passed in anything that resembled tranquillity and ease. He came to it resolved to proclaim to responsive and heedless alike the establishment on earth of that promised reign of universal peace and justice that had sustained human hope throughout the centuries. Its foundation, He declared, would be the unification, in this “century of light”, of the world’s people:

In this day … means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one.… In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent.… Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century.6

During the long years of imprisonment and banishment that followed Bahá’u’lláh’s refusal to serve the political agenda of the Ottoman authorities, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá was entrusted with the management of the Faith’s affairs and with the responsibility of acting as His Father’s spokesman. A significant aspect of this work entailed interaction with local and provincial officials who sought His advice on the problems confronting them. Not dissimilar needs presented themselves in the Master’s homeland. As early as 1875, responding to Bahá’u’lláh’s instructions, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá addressed to the rulers and people of Persia a treatise entitled The Secret of Divine Civilization, setting out the spiritual principles that must guide the shaping of their society in the age of humanity’s maturity. Its opening passage called upon the Iranian people to reflect on the lesson taught by history about the key to social progress:

Consider carefully: all these highly varied phenomena, these concepts, this knowledge, these technical procedures and philosophical systems, these sciences, arts, industries and inventions—all are emanations of the human mind. Whatever people has ventured deeper into this shoreless sea, has come to excel the rest. The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge. “Shall they who have knowledge and they who have it not, be treated alike?”7

The Secret of Divine Civilization presaged the guidance that would flow from the pen of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in subsequent decades. After the devastating loss that followed the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, the Persian believers were revived and heartened by a flood of Tablets from the Master, which provided not only the spiritual sustenance they needed, but leadership in finding their way through the turmoil that was undermining the established order of things in their land. These communications, reaching even the smallest villages across the country, responded to the appeals and questions of countless individual believers, bringing guidance, encouragement and assurance. We read, for example, a Tablet addressing believers in the village of Kishih, mentioning by name nearly one hundred and sixty of them. Of the age now dawning, the Master says: “this is the century of light,” explaining that the meaning of this image is acceptance of the principle of oneness and its implications:

My meaning is that the beloved of the Lord must regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.8

Extraordinarily, the small company of persecuted believers, living in this remote corner of a land which still remained largely unaffected by the developments taking place elsewhere in social and intellectual life, are summoned by this Tablet to raise their eyes above the level of local concerns and to see the implications of unity on a global scale:

Rather, should they view people in the light of the Blessed Beauty’s call that the entire human race are servants of the Lord of might and glory, as He hath brought the whole creation under the purview of His gracious utterance, and hath enjoined upon us to show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.9

Here, the call of the Master is not only to a new level of understanding, but implies the need for commitment and action. In the urgency and confidence of the language it employs can be felt the power that would produce the great achievements of the Persian believers in the decades since then—both in the world-wide promotion of the Cause and in the acquisition of capacities that advance civilization:

O ye beloved of the Lord! With the utmost joy and gladness, serve ye the human world, and love ye the human race. Turn your eyes away from limitations, and free yourselves from restrictions, for … freedom therefrom brings about divine blessings and bestowals.

Wherefore, rest ye not, be it for an instant; seek ye not a minute’s respite nor a moment’s repose. Surge ye even as the billows of a mighty sea, and roar like unto the leviathan of the ocean of eternity.

Therefore, so long as there be a trace of life in one’s veins, one must strive and labour, and seek to lay a foundation that the passing of centuries and cycles may not undermine, and rear an edifice which the rolling of ages and aeons cannot overthrow—an edifice that shall prove eternal and everlasting, so that the sovereignty of heart and soul may be established and secure in both worlds.10

Social historians of the future, with a perspective far more dispassionate and universal than is presently possible, and benefiting from unimpeded access to all of the primary documentation, will study minutely the transformation that the Master achieved in these early years. Day after day, month after month, from a distant exile where He was endlessly harried by the host of enemies surrounding Him, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá was able not only to stimulate the expansion of the Persian Bahá’í community, but to shape its consciousness and collective life. The result was the emergence of a culture, however localized, that was unlike anything humanity had ever known. Our century, with all its upheavals and its grandiloquent claims to create a new order, has no comparable example of the systematic application of the powers of a single Mind to the building of a distinctive and successful community that saw its ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.

Although suffering intermittent atrocities at the hands of the Muslim clergy and their supporters—without protection from a succession of indolent Qájár monarchs—the Persian Bahá’í community found a new lease on life. The number of believers multiplied in all regions of the country, persons prominent in the life of society were enrolled, including several influential members of the clergy, and the forerunners of administrative institutions emerged in the form of rudimentary consultative bodies. The importance of the latter development alone would be impossible to exaggerate. In a land and among a people accustomed for centuries to a patriarchal system that concentrated all decision-making authority in the hands of an absolute monarch or Shí‘ih mujtáhids, a community representing a cross section of that society had broken with the past, taking into its own hands the responsibility for deciding its collective affairs through consultative action.

In the society and culture the Master was developing, spiritual energies expressed themselves in the practical affairs of day-to-day life. The emphasis in the teachings on education provided the impulse for the establishment of Bahá’í schools—including the Tarbíyat school for girls,11 which gained national renown—in the capital, as well as in provincial centres. With the assistance of American and European Bahá’í helpers, clinics and other medical facilities followed. As early as 1925, communities in a number of cities had instituted classes in Esperanto, in response to their awareness of the Bahá’í teaching that some form of auxiliary international language must be adopted. A network of couriers, reaching across the land, provided the struggling Bahá’í community with the rudiments of the postal service that the rest of the country so conspicuously lacked. The changes under way touched the homeliest circumstances of day-to-day life. In obedience to the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, for example, Persian Bahá’ís abandoned the use of the filthy public baths, prolific in their spread of infection and disease, and began to rely on showers that used fresh water.

All of these advances, whether social, organizational or practical, owed their driving force to the moral transformation taking place among the believers, a transformation that was steadily distinguishing Bahá’ís—even in the eyes of those hostile to the Faith—as candidates for positions of trust. That such far-reaching changes could so quickly set one segment of the Persian population apart from the largely antagonistic majority around it was a demonstration of the powers released by Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant with His followers and by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s assumption of the leadership this Covenant invested uniquely in Him.

Throughout these years Persian political life was in almost constant turmoil. While Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh’s immediate successor, Muẓaffari’d-Dín Sháh, was induced to approve a constitution in 1906, his successor, Muḥammad-‘Alí Sháh, recklessly dissolved the first two parliaments—in one case attacking with cannon fire the building where the legislature was meeting. The so-called “Constitutional Movement” that overthrew him and compelled the last of the Qájár kings, Aḥmad Sháh, to summon a third parliament was itself riven by competing factions and shamelessly manipulated by the Shí‘ih clergy. Efforts by Bahá’ís to play a constructive role in this process of modernization were repeatedly frustrated by royalist and popular factions alike, both of which were inspired by the prevailing religious prejudice and saw in the Bahá’í community merely a convenient scapegoat. Here again, only a more politically mature age than our own will be able to appreciate the way in which the Master—setting an example for future challenges that the Bahá’í community must inevitably encounter—guided the beleaguered community in doing all it could to encourage political reform, and then in being willing to step aside when these efforts were cynically rebuffed.

It was not only through His Tablets that ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá exercised this influence on the rapidly developing Bahá’í community in the cradle of the Faith. Unlike Westerners, Persian believers were not distinguished from other peoples of the Near East by dress and appearance, and so travellers from the cradle of the Faith did not arouse the suspicion of the Ottoman authorities. Consequently, a steady stream of Persian pilgrims provided ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá with another powerful means of inspiring the friends, guiding their activities, and drawing them ever more deeply into an understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s purpose. Some of the greatest names in Persian Bahá’í history were among those who journeyed to ‘Akká and returned to their homes prepared to give their lives if necessary for the achievement of the Master’s vision. The immortal Varqá and his son Rúḥu’lláh were among this privileged number, as were Ḥájí Mírzá Ḥaydar ‘Alí, Mírzá Abu’l Faḍl, Mírzá Muḥammad-Taqí Afnán and four distinguished Hands of the Cause, Ibn-i-Abhar, Ḥájí Mullá Alí Akbar, Adíbu’l-Ulamá and Ibn-i-Aṣdaq. The spirit that today sustains Persian pioneers in every part of the world and that plays so creative a role in the building of Bahá’í community life runs like a straight line through family after family back to those heroic days. In retrospect, it is apparent that the phenomenon we today know as the twin processes of expansion and consolidation itself had its origin in those marvellous years.

Inspired by the Master’s words and the accounts brought back from the Holy Land, Persian believers arose to undertake travel-teaching activities in the Far East. During the latter years of Bahá’u’lláh’s Ministry, communities had been established in India and Burma, and the Faith carried as far as China; and this work was now reinforced. A demonstration of the new powers released in the Cause was the erection in the Russian province of Turkestan, where a vigorous Bahá’í community life had also developed, of the first Bahá’í House of Worship in the world,12 a project inspired by the Master and guided, from its inception, by His advice.

It was this broad range of activities, carried out by an increasingly confident body of believers and stretching from the Mediterranean to the China Sea, that built the base of support from which ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá was able to pursue the promising opportunities which, as the new century opened, had already begun to unfold in the West. Not the least important feature of this base was its embrace of representatives of the Orient’s great diversity of racial, religious and national backgrounds. This achievement provided ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá with the examples on which He would repeatedly draw in His proclamation to Western audiences of the integrating forces that had been released through Bahá’u’lláh’s advent.

The greatest victory of these early years was the Master’s success in constructing on Mount Carmel, on the spot designated for it by Bahá’u’lláh and through immense effort, a mausoleum for the remains of the Báb, which had been brought at great risk and difficulty to the Holy Land. Shoghi Effendi has explained that whereas in past ages the blood of martyrs was the seed of personal faith, in this day it has constituted the seed of the administrative institutions of the Cause.13 Such an insight lends special meaning to the way in which the Administrative Centre of Bahá’u’lláh’s World Order would take shape under the shadow of the Shrine of the Faith’s Martyr-Prophet. Shoghi Effendi sets the Master’s achievement in global and historical perspective:

For, just as in the realm of the spirit, the reality of the Báb has been hailed by the Author of the Bahá’í Revelation as “the Point round Whom the realities of the Prophets and Messengers revolve,” so, on this visible plane, His sacred remains constitute the heart and center of what may be regarded as nine concentric circles,14 paralleling thereby, and adding further emphasis to the central position accorded by the Founder of our Faith to One “from Whom God hath caused to proceed the knowledge of all that was and shall be,” “the Primal Point from which have been generated all created things.”15

The significance in ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s own eyes of the mission He had accomplished at such cost is movingly depicted by Shoghi Effendi:

When all was finished, and the earthly remains of the Martyr-Prophet of Shíráz were, at long last, safely deposited for their everlasting rest in the bosom of God’s holy mountain, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, Who had cast aside His turban, removed His shoes and thrown off His cloak, bent low over the still open sarcophagus, His silver hair waving about His head and His face transfigured and luminous, rested His forehead on the border of the wooden casket, and, sobbing aloud, wept with such a weeping that all those who were present wept with Him. That night He could not sleep, so overwhelmed was He with emotion.16

By 1908, the so-called “Young Turk Revolution” had freed not only most of the Ottoman empire’s political prisoners, but ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá as well. Suddenly, the restraints that had kept Him confined to the prison-city of ‘Akká and its immediate surroundings had fallen away, and the Master was in a position to proceed with an enterprise that Shoghi Effendi was later to describe as one of the three principal achievements of His ministry: His public proclamation of the Cause of God in the great population centres of the Western world.


Because of the dramatic character of the events that occurred in North America and Europe, accounts of the Master’s historic journeys sometimes tend to overlook the important opening year spent in Egypt. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá arrived there in September 1910, intending to go on directly to Europe, but was compelled by illness to remain in residence at Ramleh, a suburb of Alexandria, until August of the following year. As it turned out, the months that followed were a period of great productivity whose full effects on the fortunes of the Cause, in the African continent especially, will be felt for many years to come. To some extent the way had no doubt been paved by warm admiration for the Master on the part of Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abduh, who had met Him on several occasions in Beirut and who subsequently became Mufti of Egypt and a leading figure at Al-Azhar University.

An aspect of the Egyptian sojourn that deserves special attention was the opportunity it provided for the first public proclamation of the Faith’s message. The relatively cosmopolitan and liberal atmosphere prevailing in Cairo and Alexandria at the time opened a way for frank and searching discussions between the Master and prominent figures in the intellectual world of Sunni Islam. These included clerics, parliamentarians, administrators and aristocrats. Further, editors and journalists from influential Arabic-language newspapers, whose information about the Cause had been coloured by prejudiced reports emanating from Persia and Constantinople, now had an opportunity to learn the facts of the situation for themselves. Publications that had been openly hostile changed their tone. The editors of one such newspaper opened an article on the Master’s arrival by referring to “His Eminence Mírzá ‘Abbás Effendi, the learned and erudite Head of the Bahá’ís in ‘Akká and the Centre of authority for Bahá’ís throughout the world” and expressing appreciation of His visit to Alexandria.17 This and other articles paid particular tribute to ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s understanding of Islam and to the principles of unity and religious tolerance that lay at the heart of His teachings.

Despite the Master’s ill health that had caused it, the Egyptian interlude proved to be a great blessing. Western diplomats and officials were able to observe at first-hand the extraordinary success of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s interaction with leading figures in a region of the Near East that was of lively interest in European circles. Accordingly, by the time the Master embarked for Marseilles on 11 August 1911, His fame had preceded Him.

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