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The Armenian Apostolic Church, also called the Armenian Orthodox Church, is one of the original Oriental Orthodox churches, having separated from the then-still-united Roman Catholic/Byzantine Orthodox church in 506, after the Council of Chalcedon. The Armenian church has been labeled monophysite because they rejected the decisions of this council, which condemned monophysitism. The Coptic Orthodox Church also separated after the Council of Chalcedon. The head of the Armenian Orthodox Church is the Catholicos of Armenia (the plural is Catholicoi). The Armenian Apostolic Church should not be confused, however, with the Armenian Catholic Church, which is an Eastern Rite church under the authority of the Pope in Rome.

Liturgically, however, they have much more in common with the Latin rite, especially as it was at the time of separation, than other Orthodox rites. For example, their bishops wear vestments almost identical to those of Western bishops. They usually do not use a full iconostasis, but rather a curtain (which was also used in the West at the time of separation).

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in AD 301, when Saint Gregory the Illuminator converted the king of Armenia, Trdat IV, to Christianity.

Today there are large Armenian Orthodox congreations in many middle-eastern countries outside Armenia. Of particular importance is the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran (see also Christians in Iran) where Armenians are the largest Christian ethnic minority.

Other large Armenian Orthodox congregations are in the USA and in many Western European countries.

Article based on Wikipedia article.

PERMISSION IS GRANTED TO USE OR REPRODUCED THIS ESSAY PROVIDED THAT PROPER CREDIT IS GIVEN AS FOLLOWS: Hratch Tchilingirian, The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church (www.sain.org) 1996. Copyright 1996.


By Hratch Tchilingirian and Varand Onany


  • History
  • The Faith of the Armenian Church
  • Functional Structure of the Armenian Church
  • The Hierarchical Structure of the Church


Hratch Tchilingirian

The Church was founded by Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18; 28:19-20). According to tradition, two of His Apostles--St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew--preached His Gospel in Armenia as early as the second half of the first century. Then in 301 , St. Gregory the Illuminator formally established the Church in Armenia, when King Tiridates III was baptized and declared Christianity as the state religion. St. Gregory (c. 240-325 AD) was a descendant of a noble house in Parthia, who was brought up as a Christian in Cappadocia. He was consecrated a bishop by Leontius, the metropolitan of Caesarea, as the first Bishop of Armenia. The origin of the Armenian liturgical and sacramental tradition is ascribed to him. He began his missionary work in Armenia during the first decade of the 4th century, while a layman, and upon is consecration as Bishop he established the Armenian nation's Holy See in Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin) . He is called Illuminator because he "enlightened the nation with the light of the gospel" through baptism.

The Christianization of Armenia "determined the entire future course of Armenian history" . The Armenian nation embraced Christ in its own land where God himself "descended". Etchmiadzin, literally, means "the only begotten descended.” According to tradition, St. Gregory saw Christ in a vision who indicated to him where to build His Church, the first Armenian Church. As the new Faith took roots in the life of the nation, the invention of an Armenian alphabet was necessitated. Realizing the needs of the Armenian faithful, in 406, St. Mesrob Mashdotz (ca. 355-439) created the Armenian alphabet, under the auspices of Catholicos Sahag (ca. 348-438 ) , in order to make the Christian faith accessible to the people in a written form. Greek and Syriac were the languages used in the church services. Soon after the invention of the alphabet, St. Mesrob together with St. Sahag and a group of associates--known as Holy Translators--translated the Holy Scriptures into Armenian, followed by the biblical, theological and liturgical writings of eminent church fathers. This most important era is known as the Golden Age of Armenian history. "The missionary and literary labours [of this period] shaped the destiny of the Armenian people and Church for succeeding generations. … [St. Mesrob and St. Sahag, their disciples and co-workers] spearheaded the creation of the Armenian Christian culture under the patronage of the King Vramshapuh (ca 389-415). This period was one of intense activity and rapid development for the Church and was decisive in its consolidation and nationalization."

One of the most significant events in Armenian Christianity is the battle of Avarair. Toward the middle of the fifth century, Armenia faced growing pressures from the Persian King Yazdegert II, who had issued an edict bidding the Armenians to renounce Christ and embrace Zoroastrianism . The Armenians remained loyal to their faith, repeatedly refused to disavow Christ. In 451, headed by the commander-in-chief Vartan Mamikonian, Armenians fought against the Persians to preserve their faith. Yeghishe, the historian who wrote The History of Vartan and the Armenian War, in a dialogue between the Persian Tenshabuh (ambassador) and the Priest Ghevont, expresses the profundity of this faith, "Christ, the living and life- giving true God, by His beneficent will became the healer of souls and bodies and Himself first suffered tortures and pains to cure the entire human race. …He granted us second birth in health without pains and afflications." St. Vartan fell in the battle field of Avarair and Armenians were physically defeated. For the next thirty years oppression and resistance followed, until 484 A.D., when under the leadership of Vahan Mamikonian, Vartan’s nephew, the Persian King Peroz reversed course and declared full toleration of Christian faith and the formal recognition and establishment of the Church, in the treaty of Nuarsak.

The following centuries were difficult periods for the Armenian nation-- Persian rule (430-634) and later Arab domination (c. 654-851). In the 9th century (c. 885) there was an independent kingdom of the Bagratids in Armenia, however it ended in 1079. In the medieval Kingdom of Cilicia or Lesser Armenia, there was an independent entity from the end of the 12th century to 1375. Persecution and martyrdom had become common occurrences in the life of the Armenian nation. A larger proportion of Armenians were massacred by the Turks in the Ottoman Empire starting in the late 19th century to early 20th century. Armenians also suffered under the Russians starting in 1893 until the early 1980s.

In assessing history and the role of the Armenian Church in the life of the Armenian nation, Abp. Aram Keshishian writes: "Confessing Christ has become the quintessence of our history. The history of the Armenian Church in all its manifestations and achievements, conflicts and struggles, is in the fullest sense of the term the history of confessing Christ in action. …All the spheres of our life were touched by the transforming power of Christ. The Armenian culture in particular with its spiritual depth and transcendent dynamism has provided the Church with creative insights and new perspectives and horizons in terms of integrating Christ into the ethos of the Nation."


The Faith of the Armenian Church is transmitted through the church's Holy Tradition, i.e., the ongoing life of the church from the time of Christ to our times. The Bible, liturgy and worship, writings of the church fathers, church councils, saints, canons, religious art and rituals--organically linked together- -formulate the Holy Tradition of the Church.

This Faith is articulated in the Creed of the Armenian Church, which in turn defines the church's raison d'etre and sets the parameters of its modus operandi.

The Armenian Church professes her faith in the context of her worship. Theologically, whatever the church believes, the church prays . Therefore, the Armenian Church's worship and liturgy constitute a prime source for teaching her faith. History, i.e., Tradition, on the other hand, defines and formulates the "articles of faith" and transmits them from generation to generation.

The Armenian Church believes in One God, the Father Almighty who is the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible & invisible. Humanity (male and female) is created in the image and likeness of God, and as such is a special creature. However, because of the Fall of man, sin entered the world.

The Church believes in Jesus Christ, "the only begotten Son of God…who came down from heaven, was incarnate, was born of the Virgin Mary, by the Holy Spirit. He became man, was crucified for us and suffered and was buried. He rose again from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.

The Armenian Church believes in the Holy Spirit - uncreated and perfect, who proceeds from the Father– and together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified. The Holy Spirit spoke to the prophets and apostles and descended into the Jordan, witnessing Christ's Baptism.

The Armenian Church is One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic, Church.

She believes in one Baptism with repentance for the remission and forgiveness of sins. On judgment day, Christ will call all men and women who have repented to eternal life in His Heavenly Kingdom, which has no end. Christ overcame the power of death with His own and gave salvation to all mankind.

The dogmas of the Armenian Church are based on these "articles of faith."

The Armenian Church belongs to the Orthodox family of churches, known as the Oriental Orthodox, or Non-Chalcedonian, Churches, i.e., the Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Indian Malabar churches.

Generally, Christianity is divided mainly between Eastern and Western churches. The relationship between Byzantium (East) and Rome (West) deteriorated gradually. In the ninth century a schism between the Byzantine Church and the Church of Rome started to shape during the time of Patriarch Photius. Then in 1054, anathemas were declared by both sides (Patriarch Michael and Cardinal Humbert), which lasted for centuries. By 1204, when the Crusaders captured Constantinople, the schism had became final. In 1965, following the Vatican II Council, the anathemas were lifted by both sides in a spirit of ecumenism and understanding among the churches.

The main theological differences and disagreements between the Eastern (including the Armenians) and the Church of Rome (Catholics) are in the following issues:

Filioque: according to the teachings of the Church of Rome, the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, proceeds from the Father and the Son, while the Orthodox teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only;

Papal Supremacy: the Roman Catholics consider the Pope the “Vicar of Christ”, while the Orthodox churches consider him only as “first in honor” and in pastoral diakonia.

Papal Infallibility: The Catholics follow a "monarchical” model of ecclesial polity, while the Orthodox follow a “conciliar” model, i.e., church councils determine church dogma, canons and policies.

There are also other minor differences among these two branches of churches, such as the rules of fasting; unleavened bread at Eucharist (West); manner of conferring confirmation; celibacy of clergy; divorce (not sanctioned in Roman Catholicism); purgatory (East doesn't teach it); West has "scholastic' approach, East has "mystical" approach to theological issues.

The main difference between the Byzantine tradition, also known as Chalcedonian churches, and the Armenian Church, (together with other non- Chalcedonian churches) has been on the issue of Christology, i.e., the dogma related to Christ’s Divine and Human natures.

Abp. A. Keshishian writes, "the Christology of the Armenian Church is fundamentally in line with the Alexandrian Theological School. In fact, the Cyrillian formula of 'One Nature of the Incarnate Word' consititutes the foundation stone of her Christology. [It should be noted that] first, 'One Nature' is never interpreted in the Armenian Christology as a numerical one, but always a united one. This point is of crucial importance [for the Armenian Church] particularly in its anti-Eutychian and anti-Chalcedonian aspects. Second the term 'nature' (ousia, in Armeian bnut'iun) is used in Armenian theological literature in three different senses: (a) as essence, an abstract notion, (b) as substance, a concrete reality, (c) as person. In the context of anti-Chalcedonian Christology 'one nature' is used in a sense of 'one person' composed of two natures."

The Christological controversy continued for centuries, often becoming a matter of political influence and expediency. However, in 1990, the theologians and official representatives of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches--after years of dialogue and consultations--agreed in a formal statement that their theological understanding, especially their Christology, is "orthodox." The statement called for unity and communion among the Eastern and Oriental Churches and as such, the document was sent to the respective leaders of the participating churches for formal approval.

While the overwhelming majority of Armenians are members of the Armenian Church (also known as the “Mother Church”), a number of Armenians belong to the Armenian Catholic Church and Armenian Protestant Church (Evangelical) churches.


The functional structure of the Armenian Church is primarily based on the canons and established traditions of the Armenian Church which were formulated over the centuries. One of the most important aspects of the Armenian Church administration is its Conciliar System; i.e., the administrative, as well as doctrinal, liturgical, and canonical norms are set and approved by a council--collective and participatory decision making process. The Council of Bishops (or the Synod) is the highest religious authority in the Church.

The “norms” of the administrative structure of the church go back to the Apostolic times. A point could be made by the fact that there was a quasi- organizational structure in Christ’s group of twelve apostles. Perhaps not as clearly defined, but nevertheless, it was an organizational subsystem that was endowed with a specific task and purpose. While the Scriptures do not record the organizational aspect of the “apostolic college,” their activities and interaction underline the existence of certain “norms.” For example, the group of the twelve had a treasurer (Judas Iscariot) and a “natural” division of labor based on the talents or the personality of each apostles. Matthew was a tax collector (a “government employee”) and had certain familiarity with management practices of the time. In fact, Matthew was “sitting in his office,” when Christ met him and asked him to “follow” him (Matthew 9:9). Then we read that “Jesus called his twelve disciples together and gave them authority...” (Matthew 10:1) to carry out their mission. We also find certain “rules” for carrying out Jesus’s instructions: “The twelve men were sent out...with instructions,” (Matthew 10:5ff). One could even see traces of “bureaucracy” (as defined by Max Weber) as early as Christ’s time – i.e., a) recruitment and hierarchy, b) division of labor, c) set of rules.

After Jesus had “left” the twelve, the mission had to continue by the apostles. The first thing that the apostles did was to elect a replacement for Judas. “...A few days later there was a meeting of the believers...so they proposed two men…then they drew lots to choose between the two men, and the one chosen was Matthias, who was added to the group of eleven apostles (Acts 1;15ff). Interestingly, this “democratic” election and the proposal process, is indicative of yet anther bureaucratic norm, namely “promotion based on merit and qualification.” Eventually, as the church progressed from being a persecuted entity of believers to an institutionalized organization, the rules and admonitions of "the apostles and the elders" (Acts 15:6) were integrated in the canon books of Christian churches, including the Armenian Church. A significant aspect in Acts 15 is the "conciliarity" of the decision making process.


  • Clerical Hierarchy
    • Catholicos
    • Bishop
    • Priest
  • Lay Representation
    • National Ecclesiastical Assembly
    • Diocesan Assembly
    • Parish Assembly

The Catholicos

First on the hierarchical ladder is the Catholicos, as the Chief Bishop and Supreme head of the Armenian Church. The Catholicos is elected by a National Ecclesiastical Assembly (NEA), consisting of lay and clergy representatives of the Armenian Churches from around the world. Working closely with the Catholicos is the Supreme Ecclesiastical Council, (the administrative arm of the NEA) which carries out the overall administration of the Armenian Church throughout the world.

The Bishop

Second on the hierarchical ladder is the bishop, who is “elected” by the people and consecrated by the Catholicos with the aid of two other bishops (according to current practice, the Catholiocs has exclusive right to consacrate bishops). A bishop in a given diocese is the “chief executive officer” of the region, who works in cooperation with a Diocesan Council (consisting of clergy and lay members), who in turn are elected by the Diocesan Assembly of the region. The Bishop is the ex-officio president of each and every Diocesan organization.

The Priest

Third on the hierarchical ladder is the priest, who is appointed by the Bishop and accepted by the Parish Assembly of a given parish. The parish priest is the ex-officio president of each and every Parish organization. (In the case of "monastic priests," as it is the case in Etchmiadzin, Antelias, Jerusalem and Constaninople, they are under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos or the Patriarch of the given See).

The National Ecclesiastical Assembly

The National Ecclesiastical Assembly (NEA) consists of lay and clergy delegates elected by the diocesan Assemblies of the dioceses of the Armenian Church around the world. Every bishop in the Armenian Church is automatically a member of the Assembly. The Catholicos–or in his absence the Locum Tenens–is ex-officio president of the NEA. The primary function of the NEA is to elect a successor to a deceased Catholicos. The last NEA was convened in April 1995, when it elected His Holiness Karekin I as Catholicos of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin.

The Diocesan Assembly

The Diocesan Assembly consists of lay delegates elected by the Parish Assemblies. Every diocesan clergy is automatically a member of the Assembly. The Diocesan Primate is ex-officio president of the Diocesan Assembly.

The Parish Assembly

The Parish Assembly consists of all baptized and/or dues paying members of a given parish in a given diocese. The Pastor is the ex-officio president of the Parish Assembly.

On each level on the hierarchical structure of the Armenian Church, clergy and lay cooperation is central to the overall administration and ministry of the church. While the Church is governed according to the standards set forth in the Canons, there are complementary By-Laws in most dioceses that further define the role and relationship of each functionary in the church within a given region.

There are four hierarchical Sees in the Armenian Church:

  • The Catholicosate of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin (established by St.

Gregory the Illuminator in the fourth century).

  • The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia (established in Antelias,

Lebanon in 1930. Its roots go back to the 13th century).

  • The Patriarchate of Jersualem (the St. James Brotherhood established the

Patriarchate at the beginning of the 14th century).

  • The Patriarchate of Constantinople (established in 1461 by Sultan Mehmet


Each See has its own brotherhood, ecclesiastical jurisdiction and internal administrative by-laws. They are not separate churches, but are part of the One, Holy, Apostolic Church--the Armenian Church--and are one in dogma, theology, liturgy and in their service to the Armenian nation.


  • Church, Yegheghetzi in Armenian (from Greek Ekklesia) literally means assembly, gathering–

coming together for a common purpose, i.e., to worship God and hear His words. Cf. Nor Baragirk Haygazian Lezvi, Vol. 1, Yerevan 1979, p. 651; also Abp. Khoren Narbey, A Catechism of Christian Instruction According to the Doctrine of the Armenian Church, (New York: Diocese of the Armenian Church, 1964), p 75.

  • Although 301 has been traditionally accepted to be the date of conversion, recent critical

studies by notable scholars (H. Manandian, G. Garitte and B. Ananian) have shown that 314 is the actual date; cf. Tiran Abp. Nersoyan, Summary Topics of Armenian Church History (New Rochelle: St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, 1986), p. 3.

  • See Agathangelos, History of Armenians, [in Armenian] (Tblisi, 1914), p. 782.
  • According to archaeological findings, the present Cathedral of Etchmiadzin is where St. Gregory

built an edifice over a pagan sanctuary. Before that, St. Gregory founded a Christian sanctuary at Ashtishat in Taron.

  • Malachia Ormanian, The Church of Armenia, (London, 1910) p. 10.
  • David Marshal Lang, The Armenians, (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988), p. 47.
  • St. Mesrob Mashdotz (ca 355-439) was born in the village of Hatzegyats in Daron, Armenia.

After formal education in Armenia, he studied in Antioch, where he learned Greek, Syriac and Persian. Upon his return, he worked as a secretary in the Royal Court. In 394, he left the palace and became a monk and was eventually ordained a priest. St. Mesrob is also credited for assisting in the formulation of the Georgian and Albanian alphabets.

  • St. Sahag (ca 348-438) was born in Caesarea. He was the only son of Catholicos Nersess the

Great, whom he succeeded in 386. He was educated in Caesarea and Byzantium. Besides his important role in the invention of the Armenian alphabet, St. Sahag is also famous for organizing the Church and establishing learning centers, where the development of a rich Tradition became possible.

  • op. cit., Nersoyan, p. 8.
  • Zorastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia, especially during the Sassania dynasty

(211-640 A.D). It is a system of religious doctrine ascribed to Zoroaster. He taught that the world was made by one "Wise Lord" with the help of his Spirit and six other divine spirits or attributes of god. These spirits work against the Evil spirit, who is also helped by six other spirits and tempts man to wrong.

  • Yeshisheh, History of Vartan and the Armenian War, Trans. Dikran Boyajian, (New York: The

Delphic Press, 1952), p. 110.

  • Aram Keshishian, The Witness of the Armenian Church in a Diaspora Situation (New York:

Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, 1978), p. 53

  • The Creed of the Church is the formal declaration of her faith and belief – as expressed in the

Constantinopolitan formulary. The dogmas and teachings of the Armenian Church are based on the declarations of the first three Ecumenical Councils of the Church – Nicea, in 325 A.D., defined the divinity of the Son of God; Constantinople, in 381, defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit; Ephesus, in 431, defined Christ as the Incarnate Word of God and Mary was declared Theotokos (Astoua‘a‘in). Subsequent "Ecumenical" Councils, which are accepted by the Byzantine and Roman churches, defined other theological issues – Chalcedon 451, Constantinople II 555, Constantinople III 680, Nicea II 787 – however, they are not formally recognized by the Armenian Church. Nevertheless, the decision of Council of Nicea II (787) to uphold the veneration of the holy icons is in conformity with the Armenian tradition already articulated by Catholicos Vrtanes Kertogh in the seventh century.

  • Lex orandi est Lex credendi et agendi, (Latin) "the rule of prayer is the rule of belief and of

action." This simple rule is the essence of liturgical theology. According to the patristic understanding, "the man of prayer is the true theologian; the true theologian is the man of prayer."

  • The word Ish and Ishah in Hebrew are the masculine and feminine of the same word human.

An exhaustive discussion of this topic is found in Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), pp. 201-208. S. Verhovskoy writes, "The profound thought of Genesis lies in the indissolubility of man and woman…in the very moment of creation. God created not one man but two, in combination and mutual dependence." For a theological discussion of this topic see Serge Verhovskoy, "Creation of man and the Establishment of the Family in the Light of the Book of Genesis," St. Valdimir's Theological Quarterly 8:1/64, pp. 5-30.

  • Theologically, in the image of God means sharing the spiritual attributes of divinity. Likeness is

the potential of humans to become Godlike, through His grace. From a theological point of view, human development and growth is a continuous process in life.

  • Sin in the original Greek (hamarthia) means "missing the mark," failure to be what one should

be and to do what one should do.

  • ONE--the Church is one because Christ founded one church. There can only be one Church

and not many, as such the Church is indivisible. HOLY--the holiness of the Church comes from God. "The members of the Church are holy to the extent that they live in communion with God…. Within the earthly Church, people participate in God’s holiness. Sin and error separate them from this divine holiness as it does from the divine unity. Thus the earthly members and institutions of the Church cannot be identified as such with the Church as holy." CATHOLIC--the catholicity of the Church is understood in terms of the Church’s universality throughout time and space. Also, the term catholic should not be confused with the Roman Catholic Church. APOSTOLIC--the term apostolic, traditionally, affirms the establishment of the Armenian Church by Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew. However, the fact that the word apostolic describes that which has a mission, that which has “been sent” to accomplish a task should not be overlooked. "As Christ was sent from God, so Christ Himself chose and sent His apostles." He said, "as the Father has sent me, even so I send you… receive ye the Holy Spirit.” Just as the apostles were sent by Christ to preach the word of God, the Church, i.e., its earthly members, is also sent by God to bear witness to His Kingdom, to keep His word and to do His will and His works in this world. cf. Thomas Hopko, Doctrine (New York: OCA, 1981), pp. 123-128.

The major sacraments of the Armenian Church are: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Holy Communion, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Unction with Oil. Sacrament (Khorhoort) means mystery, i.e., something that cannot be explained in "human terms." St. Paul uses the word mystery to explain God's desire to save, renew and unite all things in Christ. Jesus is mystically present in all the sacraments of the church and is Himself the officiant through the person of the priest. The sacraments are outward signs that give grace and blessings to the person receiving the sacrament. For a more detailed discussion of sacraments in the Armenian Church, see Garabed Kochakian, The Sacraments: The Symbols of our Faith, (New York: Diocese of the Armenian Church, DRE, 1983); Bp. S. Kaloustian, Saints and Sacraments, (New York: Diocese of the Armenian Church, ACYOA, 1964), pp. 37-58. Also op. cit. Ormanian, The Church of Armenia, pp. 114-117. For a historical survey and study of the Armenian Church's sacraments, see F. C. Conybeare, Rituale Armenorum, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905).

op. cit., Keshishian, pp. 58-59n.

For the text of the Joint Statement see Window Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 3, 1992, pp. 21-24.

op. cit., Nersoyan, p. 25-26.

For an extensive discussion of Evangelical Armenians, see Leon Arpee, A Century of Armenian Protestantism (New York: The Armenian Missionary Association, 1946).

  • Most other traditional churches are also governed by the same principles, e.g., the Eastern

Orthodox Churches).

  • For further discussion of this issue, see Hratch Tchilingirian, The Administrative Structure of the

Armenian Church (Thesis at California State University, Northridge, 1991), pp. 9-11. For a historical survey of the Armenian Church's canonical tradition, see Tiran Nersoyan, "A Brief Outline of the Armenian Liber Canonum and its Status in Modern Times." Kanon (Jahrbuch der geselischaft für das Recht der Ostkirchen), Vienna 1973, pp. 76-86.


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