THEME: Mediation and International Politics

Sub-theme: How to Deal with the Devil: Exploring Mediation as an Effective Mechanism to Resolve Religious Disputes?


This article is authored by Shreya Gajbhiye and Dhrishraj Suresh from NLSIU, Bangalore.


In a world of growing conflict and increasing tension, the importance of ADR mechanisms is more pronounced than ever. The active involvement of questions of faith, belief, identity and emotions makes these disputes harder to mediate. Hence, it is important to layout a specific framework for mediation in religious conflicts which addresses the process of reconciliation and the mediator as a central participant therein

What Makes Religious Disputes Unique and Difficult

Religious disputes are often considered to be intractable problems with multiple layers. In order to understand why religious disputes are fundamentally different from other kinds of disputes, it becomes important to identify what we mean by them in the first place. In doing this we must first define what we mean by religion itself, which in this context would be defined as the “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents”[1].  Or in other, simpler terms, religion can be thought of an institution where individuals find a sense of community in holding certain shared beliefs about the divine or supernatural; and taking part in rituals flowing from such beliefs. Individuals belonging to religious groups often have a key part of their social identities, that is their self-image, being shaped by their membership of such group. The pressure to evaluate one’s group positively in relation to another (out) group leads social groups to differentiate themselves from one another. In times of conflict such tendencies are accentuated to the point where the conflicting groups find very little common ground and hence getting them to resolving differences becomes a challenge. This not only places a challenge on relations at a community level, but also at an interpersonal level as individuals finding safety in numbers have a higher tendency to fuse their personal and social identities. This could extend to identifying with the wider aims and anxieties of their group to the point where such individuals may be even willing to kill or die for their group.[2]

Religious conflicts frequently have a cloak of theology surrounding them, while the underlying issues at stake are often socio-economic, which can be among others, a conflict over resources, rights representation and so on. Questions of theology are mostly based on unfalsifiable premises, leaving them easily contestable and hence, after a certain point making them often beyond the scope of what a mediation process can achieve. Hence it becomes crucial for a mediator to instead follow a transformative approach to the proceedings that aims to ensure that relations of trust and mutual respect are built between the parties to ensure that they can resolve their conflicts and live peacefully with their differences.

The core argument of this article is that in order for parties to reach a settlement, the mediator must ensure that in his role as a neutral third party to separate the theological aspects of a dispute from its mundane aspects. This essentially requires such person to remove the cloak of religion and truly understand what the underlying issues between the parties are. The reason we use the phrase ‘the cloak of religion’ is that quite often in such disputes the layers of beliefs and hatreds are so strong that parties often fail to separate their positions from their interests, resulting in the need for transformative approaches as outlined above. This is done by first exploring the nuances in neutrality that arise when the dispute has religion as a subject matter, and what can be done to appear equidistant from the parties but retaining an overall balance. Next, the importance of identifying and segregating the theological aspects from the non-theological aspects of the disputes is highlighted, while also looking into their consequences. Finally, a case study of the Northern Ireland Conflict is done to show how these concepts pan out in reality.

Understanding Neutrality in the Context of Religious Disputes

Talks on subjects involving identity and faith go beyond negotiations. A secure understanding of the religious tradition of one’s own self along with that of others paves the way for open and trustful inter-religious discourse. This understanding should be inculcated in a peaceful and respectful spirit towards other traditions. Many mutually exclusive claims of truth are made by religions of the world. These pose as a barrier to discourse and wholesome participation in the society which is at par with the impediment caused by secular ideologies’ implicit or explicit claims of truth. An exchange across cultures, social groups and inevitably, religions is often an exchange across opposing views of the world and the truth.[3]

There are many situations where the mediators, while being careful about not being evaluative towards the parties, might have to exercise their judgement, aside from the passive enabling of a channel for open communication. The nature of the conflicts that they intervene in may require them to undertake a more active role that may appear to favour one party over another at least prima facie. However, this is not necessarily violative of the concept of a mediator as a neutral third party. In fact, this may be necessary to maintain the overall neutrality of the process as a whole, ultimately increasing the legitimacy of the negotiated settlement thus reached between the parties. Such active participation in religious disputes, may for instance require the mediator to take an active role to decouple religion from the larger conflict at hand.

Mediation is seen from two aspects, as an activity done by the mediator and as a process in and of itself. When seen as a doing of the mediator, mediation is a dynamic, efficient but ultimately a human activity. Even though they are confined to be a neutral third party, mediators are also ironically the most influential participant as they play a central role in the process. This makes their performance extremely crucial, leading to the question of neutrality of the mediator. The complexity of the activity lies herein, especially when it comes to religious disputes. In most societies, religion is an important facet of life. It is one of the most pervasive phenomena in our world, with most societies giving it prime importance. Exposure to religion in one’s life is unavoidable. A mediator is also a person prone to their own inherent beliefs, a big part of which is dictated by religion. It has been widely recognized that people are products of their own upbringing. Due to layers and layers of socialization, a person becomes oblivious to their own inherent biases. This leads to the paradox of neutrality. How is a person supposed to abstain from letting their beliefs get the better of them when they are unaware of what to abstain from in the first place?[4]

This problem is amplified in the case of religion, where teachings are enforced from a young age as being the gospel and absolute truth.  Moreover, neutrality in fact is less important in the context of mediation as compared to neutrality as perceived by the parties on the table. Perception in the eyes of the parties is what lends the mediator their legitimacy. It is extremely important that the parties see the mediator to be impartial and free from their own religious constraints in order to feel comfortable and allow for a free-flow of information.[5] Hence, it can be said, the more committed a mediator is towards neutrality, the more legitimacy they acquire. Neutrality need not be conflated with passivity as has been outlined earlier.

There are three concepts around which it revolves – ideology, power, and justice – which function interdependently.[6] Invocation of any of them reinstates all of them. When power is balanced, justice is served. Hidden interest may result in injustice and disclosing hidden interests leads to balancing of power. Neutrality is spoken of as a requisite for achieving procedural justice, the rectification of power imbalances and the avoidance of ideology.[7]

The dominant approach towards neutrality is a passive attitude of not favouring any of the parties present. This impartiality can be considered to be the absence of agendas, feelings values or any strong opinions; or avoiding any ‘biases’. It is the mediator’s call to either dismiss these feelings or separate them completely from the mediation process. Neutrality can be threatened by both unconscious and conscious factors as impartiality deals with values which are internal to the mediator.[8] The point of concern is that the parties might be pushed or inclined to adopt one or the other position when the mediator is unaware of their biases and acts on them. The mediators themselves are thus reconstructed as repositories for ideology as the practice of neutrality is put beyond the control of the mediator through such a characterization of it. The point to be noted here is that there usually are existing inequalities in the footing of the parties and this is affected by how mediators behave at the table. These are at the risk of being exacerbated when the mediators are unaware of their inherent biases, especially in sensitive matters like religion. To tackle this, it is important for the mediator to assess themselves for any exposure to the religious elements present in the subject matter of the dispute.[9]

Mediators also have the task of keeping the disputants from exerting undue force over each other, and to balance power. In this regard, it may be seen that justice is best served if none of the sides are favoured or disfavoured. However, if the entire agreement process as a summative whole is considered, neutrality is the active process by which bias is used to achieve symmetry in the outcome.

The initial definition of neutrality as avoidance of all biases presumes them to have negative psychological characteristics. Now, another interpretation of it is based on the presumption that bias is simply being ‘close to’ and proximate to the parties as a positive connotation, as long as it is balanced overall. A good example of how such inherent biases are acknowledged head on is the SPIDR Professional Code of Ethics for its Practitioners.[10] This code makes it a requirement for the mediators to inculcate controlled bias in their conduct to ensure that the ‘representations’ of the interests of both the parties are made in the mediation process. To put it in other words, the mediators might at some points have to actively advocate for one or the other party which seem to be stuck at the lower end of the see-saw. If they do not imbibe this in their practice, they might be unknowingly contributing to the maintenance of the imbalanced power dynamics between the two parties at the table.[11]

Another argument for the active involvement of mediators playing a participatory role in the process of religious disputes is to tackle adversary biases. Especially among disputants of two clashing religions, the fostering of a relationship between the two parties is not really an overt position. Their main goals appear to them prima facie as either righting a wrong which in their perspective the other party was complicit in committing and in the process emerging as the ‘winner’ of the conflict.[12] In any case, there is deep animosity towards each other as both the parties may even have different notions of ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’. The parties may view the ideal ending of the dispute as getting their share and subsequently being on their way, in the sense that there is no amity created. In such scenarios, even if the parties agree to negotiate, they end up being dismissive towards each other’s inputs due to the bias which stems from such animosity. This bias is because of the assumption that an offer communicated is bad because of who is making the offer. The feeling of animosity is transported to the offer and this hinders option generation, even if the inputs made are actually sound.[13]

Here it becomes crucial for the mediator to step in and reinstate the separation of the identity of people from the merits of the option proposed i.e. separate the people from the problem. Further, it is very important to establish channels of communication between such parties over less contentious issues at first in the build up to negotiations regarding more contentious issues as both parties are not only better aware of each other’s interests, but also are more assured of each other’s commitment to the dialogue.

Moving on from the idea of mediation as a practice that mediators engage in, it can further be conceptualized as a process, to deconstruct the dispute and fish out a common ground for both the disputants. In terms of religious disputes, the complexity and sensitivity of the subject matter can perpetuate the dispute as an intractable one. Defining it broadly, intractable conflicts are the ones which continue for a long time despite efforts for political settlement.[14] This aversion to settlement might seem rooted in a principle ingredient or a single cause. But on a closer look, reveals multiple contributing factors and causes. From the perspective of the parties, the only way to go about is head on confrontation of the conflict. The representative leaders might be functioning on a natural assumption of their interests being irreconcilable, and that they are better off maintaining the status quo, rather than considering alternatives. The intervention of a third party becomes necessary here so that the hidden interests are brought to the surface and tackled by enlightening the two parties about it. Otherwise the parties are at risk of getting stuck in a culture of demands and revenge.[15]

A mediator needs to be mindful of being able to distinguish the theological parts of the conflict from the non-theological aspects, i.e. conflicts being carried forward under the cloak of religion but actually stem from non-religious causes. These factors can be socio-economic like claims over resources or turbulent relations between the groups.[16] Such a distinction is important simply because the approaches will vary greatly due to the significant difference in the underlying interests. The theological aspects can be unambiguous issues that are based on unfalsifiable premises which are constituents of the religion. An example of this could be clashing interpretations of a sacred religious text, a custom violation or a dispute over a religious site. Here, the position has no layers, it is the interest. It cannot be reasoned with or prodded further to bring a change or compromise.[17] This quality of having unarguable positions which coincide with the interests is one of the reasons that makes religious disputes so unique. An assertive approach of ‘digging-deeper’ might just lead to alienation of/offending the parties and possibly isolate the mediator. Hence care must be taken in this regard.

While on the contrary, the non-theological aspects might be positions layered with a host of reasons and interests.[18] Here, an opposite approach of patience coupled with systematic questioning can uncover the real claims of the conflicts, and further the real causes of the behind it. There is scope for option generation and compromise, it is like an ordinary conflict except with the added force of religion. In this context, pecuniary advantages do not hold much weight as emotional and faith considerations.[19] Hence, mediators need to employ an approach which grant merit to mediation as an alternative method which attracts the parties and keeps them cooperative. The task is to include an incentive structure so that the parties realize the real, tangible advantages coming out of the process, which leaves them better off than the status quo. In other words, a negotiated compromise has to be shown as more desirable than persistent hostility to the representatives and leaders in charge of calling the shots. Mediators need step up and collect tools of influence and even leverage, in case of belligerent parties so that the interests, vulnerabilities, objectives, needs and sense of ‘sunk cost’ in the disagreement of the parties in the dispute are addressed and catered to.

Active and Passive Neutrality: Approaches to the Conflicts in Bosnia and Northern Ireland

In order to better understand the distinction between mediation as an activity and as a process, it would be illustrative to look at the approach taken by George Mitchell, a former US senator, as a mediator in the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. The conflict in Northern Ireland, more commonly known as the Troubles, lasted from the late 1960s to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, resulted from the tensions between Protestants and Catholics that brewed from centuries of English rule in Ireland and the resulting discrimination that had to be endured by Catholics there. On the surface, one could argue the dispute had a theological basis coming from the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants in the region. However, when scratching the surface, it becomes apparent that actual sources of conflict were the Catholic minority’s grievances resulting from centuries of discrimination and marginalisation under English rule. While the Protestants in the region feared being marginalised in Catholic majority state if Northern Ireland were to reunify with the Republic of Ireland. In essence these feelings can be summed up as being the anxieties of the parties of becoming a threatened minority if either party were to succeed.[20] As this situation demonstrates that, while the conflict between the two religious did indeed have some theological moorings, the actual root of the conflict lay at the earthly concerns over power and rights that these groups enjoyed or were deprived of. This made it crucial for any mediators aiming to fruitfully carry out their role to ensure at the outset to establish some level of trust between the communities and to promote positive interactions between[21] the parties. The latter is particularly important to trust building as both parties have had their previous experiences of each other being marred by negative instances of violence by groups claiming to represent their interests. This fact was discovered rather early on by Mitchell in his mission when initiating the talks leading up to the agreement, where not only did he face opposition from certain parties on account of being an outsider to the dispute but he also faced considerable challenges to get the parties onto the negotiating table in the first place as the parties at first refused to talk.[22] Tensions were exacerbated by the fact that the discourse was dominated by hardliners on both sides who saw any moves towards talks as ‘selling out’.[23] An issue that would remain relevant even after the commencement of talks as these groups could act as potential spoilers to a settlement between parties. Facing these challenges, Mitchell tackled them by following a patient approach that aimed to build trust between the parties before they got to the nitty-gritties of proper negotiations. He summarised his approach in the form of the Mitchell Principles of democracy and non-violence.[24]

To carry out this approach, Mitchell and his team first encouraged the participants to communicate informally among themselves in order to re-establish ties that had been broken over years of conflict and to ensure parties got a sense of how serious parties were resolving a given issue. In order to reduce the effect hardliners may have on reaching a settlement, he ensured that these groups were allowed to leave the negotiations of their own accord.[25] While simplifying participation, this also ensured that the number of participants was controlled thus reducing complexity during negotiations. In addition, the concept of sufficient consensus from the Mitchell principles was followed wherein a compromise was drawn between decisions being taken on a simple majority, which could potentially lead to parties in the minority disgruntled, and on unanimity, which would have been impossible to achieve. Instead what this newer concept did was to ensure was that not only did a proposal have to be cleared by an overall simple majority, but also such majority must consist of the parties representing the majority of the Catholic and Protestant communities.[26] This gave more room for manoeuvre to the remaining parties to form a coalition of moderates and reach an agreement that addressed concerns on both sides. It also added to efficiency as it brought the parties closer to the Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA) by negating, at the outset, the options which either of the parties had found to be out of question. This method of decision-making was helpful in such context as it led to effective communication without leading to deadlock on sensitive issues. This also helps establish parity between parties in the sense that one party would have taken into account the concerns of the other party before making a proposal, becoming especially crucial in situations where one of the parties is in a disadvantaged position as a smaller group. This holds true as both parties know that either of them can exercise their veto powers. The preliminary talks set the stage for the actual negotiations to commence where in order to establish as his position as an impartial third party, Mitchell agreed to put up for discussion matters such as his role in the proceedings, the rules of procedure to be followed and the agenda to be discussed.[27] The most contentious issues were left for last as Mitchell aimed for the parties to develop a working relationship with each other by deciding on the least contentious issues first and then slowly nudge the parties towards more contentious issues as the negotiations went on.[28]

This takes us back to the approach represented in the diagram in the preceding paragraphs. Of course, such strategies have to factor in the differing constraints of time and urgency that are present in different disputes.

This is demonstrated by the very different approach undertaken by Richard Holbrooke when mediating between the parties to the Bosnian War in the leadup to the Dayton Accords of 1995. The conflict in Yugoslavia can be conceptualised as an ethnic conflict with strong religious undertones, with all three ethnic groups in the conflict belonging to different faiths with the Serbs being Orthodox Christian, the Bosniaks Muslim and the Croats Roman Catholic. While the Balkans have had a long history of conflict, the war in Bosnia was triggered by the unleashing of ethnic violence following the breakup of Yugoslavia into its constituent ethnic republics. The collapse of the Yugoslav state led to wars over conflicting territorial claims between the various ethnicities, with Bosnia being the most contested republic as it had the most diverse population with no ethnic group enjoying a majority. This especially stood against Serb desires for a greater Serbia that would include territory in Bosnia.[29] The Serbian republic led by Slobodan Milosevic provided support to Bosnian Serb rebels who in turn carried out acts of genocide against the Bosniaks in towns such as Srebenica. It was in essence a tripartite conflict with all sides arming and training militias to further their cause.

With this being the context, the international community’s attention turned to the war in Bosnia with Richard Holbrooke being placed in charge of the negotiations to resolve the conflict. Mitchell could afford to take his more patient approach in a slow burning insurgency like that of Northern Ireland, whereas Holbrooke had no such luxury as any delay would have put the embattled Bosniaks under further risk of genocide in the raging Yugoslav conflict. Additionally any delay in resolving the conflict would result in ‘conflict widening’ bringing in more regional players, adding to the complexity in the resolution process.[30] The methods by Holbrooke may have occasionally seemed on the surface as favouring certain parties (mostly the Bosniaks) and thus violating norms of mediator neutrality, however when seen in the broader context of the ongoing conflict where the Bosniaks were a besieged minority facing prospects of genocide at the hands of state sanctioned Serb militias, such an approach was indeed justified (including the threats and actual use of NATO strikes and economic sanctions) in order to both bring a certain level of parity among the parties as well forcing the belligerent militias to come to the negotiating table.[31] The carrot and stick approach adopted by Holbrooke in the lead up to the Dayton negotiations seems justified considering the urgency of the matters at hand. However, when looking at the long-term consequences of the agreement in terms of actual inter-community relations now more than two decades down the line, the legacy of the two agreements present a very different picture. These are a result of the different intensities of the two conflicts in questions and the negotiated settlement that resulted from them, which is in many ways itself reflective of the different approaches adopted by the mediators to get there.[32]

Unlike the general sense of satisfaction felt by participants at the signing of the Good Friday Accords, the sentiment at Dayton was much more guarded, with the leader of the Bosniak delegation Alija Izetbegovic candidly remarking that “it was a bitter and unjust peace resulting from a brutal process” and the maintenance of the tenuous peace that followed was contingent on the presence of peacekeeping forces from outside.[33] To blame Holbrooke for such outcomes would be unfair as he fulfilled the very specific objectives he was instructed with when spearheading the negotiations at Dayton, that of securing an end to the conflict at hand.[34] In addition, Holbrooke was dealing with parties who being active combatants in a civil conflict would have been keen to consolidate any military gains they may have made in the course of the conflict, making any strong-arm tactics on part of the mediating groups all the necessary.

While still exercising strong arm tactics in getting parties to the table in the first place, Holbrooke adopted an approach not too dissimilar from that of Mitchell in that he considered the interests of the parties and attempted to find areas of convergence that could point towards resolution. Holbrooke’s role as a third party was important in that it helped parties lay the blame on the agreement’s flaws as perceived by them on the third party (the US represented by Holbrooke here) rather than having them admit to making concessions to the enemy. The mediator here essentially helps parties save face.[35] Saving face becomes especially important in religious conflicts considering, as mentioned previously, the fundamental role religion plays in framing individual identities and how a compromise in such a conflict can be seen as an attack on a person’s very identity. The representatives of the parties are accountable to their people they claim to represent after all. The need for the parties to respect the mediator’s role in such a conflict gets heightened not only due to the higher stakes involved but also for such a peace to be truly sustainable in the long run as members in both groups would have to respect the legitimacy of the negotiated settlement.[36] This was also a product of Holbrooke’s more active role in the mediation process as opposed to Mitchell’s more passive role. As part of his approach he highlighted the fact that the parties had very weak BATNAs in that the alternative to negotiations was only conflict where the Bosniaks faced further prospects of ethnic cleansing while the Serbs and Croats were faced with the prospects of economic sanctions and NATO air strikes.[37] Holbrooke rather forcefully presented the consequences of non-agreement as being bleak in order to convince even sceptics of the need to enter negotiations.


Religious disputes, which often turn into intractable conflicts, are hard to mediate because of their persistent, embedded and enduring nature. As seen in the examples taken, mediation provides an apt third-party intervention mechanism to locate common ground in a melee of positions that the parties are cemented to by religion. It is important to deconstruct the issues to the core so that each issue and broken down so that each unit of disagreement is dealt with by an appropriate approach, which is best left to be decided by the mediator. Despite absolute passive neutrality being unattainable, particularly in a religious conflict, there are ways where that an overall symmetry can be achieved among the parties, even when there already exist power imbalances in their footing. Here, the mediators’ conduct becomes pivotal hence, they have to play a proactive and balanced role along with holding good faith in the utmost regard. This is how they gain legitimacy in the eyes of the parties, for themselves, the process and the outcome thereof. Hence the approaches adopted by Holbrooke and Mitchell, while indeed differing as noted above, can be illuminating in this regard.

Further, they need to show the parties the consequences of prolonged conflict and these need to be juxtaposed to the results of an attainable compromise assuring the end of the dispute, where all concerns have a chance to be addressed and dealt with. The mediator’s job here will be to break these concerns down, and carefully characterize them into theological or otherwise and deal with them accordingly. They will have to see through the ‘cloak of religion’ and respectfully unearth the latent interests so that they can be deliberated upon freely. Through this, they will be streamlining efforts directly on the true source of the intractability.


[1] F. LeRon Shults et al., (2018) A Generative Model of the Mutual Escalation of Anxiety Between Religious Groups, 21(4) J. Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 7, 10 (2018).

[2] WB Swann Jr et al., Identity fusion: The Interplay of Personal and Social Identities in Extreme Group Behavior Moderates Responses to Intergroup Versions of the Trolley Problem, 96(5) Psychological Science 1177, 1178 (2010).

[3] Omotosho Mashood, Managing Religious Conflicts: The Inter-Religious Mediation Strategy, 39(2) Africa Development 133, 150 (2014).

[4] Janet Rifkin et al., Practice and Paradox: Deconstructing Neutrality in Mediation, 16(1), Law & Social Inquiry 35, 42 (1991).

[5] Omotosho Mashood, supra note 3, at 137.

[6] Janet Rifkin, supra note 4, at 43.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 46.

[9] Sriram Panchu, The Road Less Travelled – An Increasingly Attractive Path, 19 Student Bar Review 30, 41 (2007).

[10] Jonas Baumann et al., Rethinking Mediation: Resolving Religious Conflicts Religion, 6 Policy Perspectives 3, 7 (2018).

[11] Id.

[12] Jacob Bercovitch et al., Religion and Mediation: The Role of Faith-Based Actors in International Conflict Resolution, 2009 International Negotiation 175, 192.

[13] F. Matthews-Giba, Religious Dimensions of Mediation, 27(5) Fordham Urban L. J. 55, 61 (2000).

[14] The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution 495 (Jacob Bercovitch et al.eds., 2009).

[15] Donal O’Reardon, Can Religious Differences Be Mediated?, (Apr. 11, 2010)

[16] Id.

[17] Leonard L. Riskin, Decisionmaking in Mediation: The New Old Grid and the New New Grid System, 79 Notre Dame Law Review 3, 8 (2003).

[18] Religion in mediation: a different perspective? Peace Insight (Mar. 28, 2017, 9:29 PM)

[19] Id.

[20] Daniel Curran et al., Two Paths to Peace: Contrasting George Mitchell in Northern Ireland with Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia–Herzegovina, 20(4) Negotiation J. 513, 535 (2004).


[22] Id. at 522.

[23] Id. at 536.

[24] Id. at 522.

[25] Id. at 521.

[26] Encouraging Openness: Essays for Joseph Agassi on the Occasion of His 90th Birthday 279-280 (Nimrod Bar-Am & Stefano Gattei eds., 2017).

[27] Curran et al., supra note 24, at 523.

[28] Id. at 525.

[29] Id. at 533.

[30] Leon Hartwell, Conflict Resolution: Lessons from the Dayton Peace Process, 35(4) Negotiation J. 443, 453 (2019).

[31] Id. at 450.

[32] Curran et al., supra note 11, at 530.

[33] Id. at 530.

[34] Hartwell, supra note 30, at 451.

[35] Id. at 457.

[36] Curran et al., supra note 32, at 5.

[37] Hartwell, supra note 34, at 451.

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