Kiss, Holy

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[This article, written in the 1950s, reflects the practice in Mennonite groups at that time.}

In conformity with the New Testament command that Christians greet each other with the holy kiss (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26) or the kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14) considerable use has been made of the kiss as a symbol of love and fellowship in the history of the Christian Church. This spontaneous and pure expression of the love for the brethren within the fellowship was originally a part of every corporate act of worship. It was not the same as the common kiss among friends in the Roman world, nor the common Jewish salutation among friends, for it was a "holy" kiss and observed only among members of the church. In his description of the worship services of the Christians of the second century, Justin Martyr reported that the kiss was regularly used. The Apostolic Constitutions stated: "Then let the men apart, and the women apart, salute each other with a kiss in the Lord." Origin connected the kiss of the Christians with the apostolic injunction of Romans 16:16. Cyprian reported that the one baptizing a convert, as well as the entire church, greeted the newly baptized with the holy kiss. The evidence is clear that the kiss was uniformly used at both baptism and communion in the early church, and it is found in all the ancient liturgies. Gradually it disappeared from common use, from the fourth century on, and became restricted to liturgical and ritual ceremonies. It continued to be practiced in the early medieval church in baptism, ordination, consecration of bishops, absolution of penitents, marriage ceremony, and the Lord's Supper. In the liturgical churches, particularly Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, it has continued to the present day with little modification in the ceremonies of ordination and consecration of bishops. In the medieval period such a conception of the kiss developed as involved the kissing of inanimate objects associated with the sacraments and services of the church as well as the vestments and rings of the higher clergy. These have also continued to the present day. It was renewed again somewhat in its original sense in monasticism and in some of the medieval sects such as the Albigenses and Waldenses. The Anabaptist movement of the 16th century, apparently of all countries, Switzerland, Germany, and Netherlands, revived and maintained the observance of the holy kiss in the common fellowship of the brotherhood on a widespread if not universal basis.

In a fellowship such as the Anabaptists with an emphasis on a literal following of the commands of Christ and His apostles, with a stress on the infallibility, unity, and authority of the Bible, with a conscious attempt to re-establish the church on its apostolic foundations, it is not surprising to find the same spirit of love within the fellowship which characterized the early church, nor to find love's most intimate and Biblical expression, the holy kiss. Their heartfelt love for their fellow believers caused them to adopt the terminology of the family in speaking of one another, referring to one another as brothers and sisters, just as the earliest Christians (and later the Waldenses) had referred to one another. The letters of persecuted Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites abound in examples of this familial denotation; e.g., "We would inform our most beloved brethren and sisters in the Lord, and all who seek to fear the Lord with the whole heart, that we are all (the Lord be praised forever) of very good cheer, and hope to adhere to the word of the Lord." "Herein rejoice now with us, O you holy brethren and sisters in the Holy Spirit of truth." "In the same year, on the first Friday after St. Martin's Day, brother John Korbmacher, a minister of the Word of God and of His church (who was frequently sent out into the work of the Lord), was apprehended for the faith and the Word of God" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 181, 488, 276, English: 566, 830, 645).

In this environment of love and affection the injunctions of Paul to "greet the brethren with a kiss of love," and that of Peter to "salute one another with a kiss of love" were readily accepted by the Anabaptists as directly applying to themselves as a sign and seal of the love and brotherhood which existed among brethren and sisters.

Menno Simons mentioned the kiss at least twice in his writings. With his strict emphasis on a disciplined and pure church it is not surprising to find his emphasis on the relation of the kiss to the disciplined brotherhood. "If some deceiver should come to us who has left the doctrine of Christ. . . we should not receive such an one into our houses, lest he deceive us; and. . . we should not greet him as a brother lest we have communion with him. . . But the greeting or kiss of peace signifies the communion." "We certainly know that there is but one excommunication in the Scriptures, which does not only extend to the spiritual communion, such as the Lord's Supper, and the hand and kiss of peace; but it also extends to the bodily communion, such as eating, drinking, daily actions and conduct. . ." (Writings: 480, 971).

Thus we find that as early in the Anabaptist movement as Menno Simons the kiss was accepted as a normal Christian practice. Moreover we are sure from this that it was one of the instruments of discipline and of defining the brotherhood in that it was practiced only among the brethren and sisters and that it was denied those brethren and sisters who because of sin were in a state of excommunication.

The kiss had an early emphasis among the early Dutch Anabaptists as evidenced by the writing of Menno Simons; did it also have early acceptance by the Swiss-South German Anabaptists? As will be shown there are a few references in the Martyrs Mirror to the use of the kiss by Anabaptists in Austria as early as 1528, and again in 1546, and by Alsatian Anabaptists in 1558. The kiss was not mentioned in the Schleitheim Confession, the earliest of the Anabaptist statements of faith, which was formulated in 1527 near the border of Switzerland and Germany. However, in 1568, after a series of conferences held to come to an agreement on faith and practice, a discipline of 23 articles was adopted by a group of South German and Swiss Anabaptists at Strasbourg. The eleventh article of this discipline stated the use of the kiss and its restriction to the brotherhood. The fact that the kiss was limited as to sex in this discipline is also significant. " The brethren and sisters, each to each, shall greet each other with a holy kiss; those who have not been received into fellowship shall not be greeted with a kiss, but with the words, 'the Lord help you'" (Mennonite Quarterly Review I, 1927, 65).

Another early confession is one appearing in the Martyrs' Mirror under the title "Confession of Faith According to the Holy Word of God" and reputed to have been written about the year 1600. In this confession the kiss is twice alluded to, once in connection with feet washing and once in relation to excommunication. Article XXIII: Of the footwashing of believers. When their fellow believers, out of love, visit them, they shall with heartfelt humility, receive them with the kiss of love and peace into their houses, and as a ministration of their neighbors, according to the humility of Christ, wash their feet. . . Article XXIX: Of the withdrawing from and avoiding of apostate and separated members is confessed: As separation is commanded by God for the reformation of sinners, and the maintenance of the purity of the church; so God has also commanded and willed, that in order to shame him to reformation, the separated individual is to be shunned and avoided... This withdrawing extends to all spiritual communion, as the Supper, evangelical salutation, the kiss of peace, and all that pertains to it. This withdrawing extends likewise to all temporal and bodily things... (Martyrs Mirror Dutch. I: 439, 445; English: 399, 405).

After having been stated so strongly in the earlier statements of faith it is rather startling that the kiss was not mentioned in the important Dordrecht (1632) and Cornelis Ris (1747) confessions, which became the official statements of faith of the majority of North American Mennonite churches by the 1950s; the (Old) Mennonite Church and the Amish churches holding to the Dordrecht Confession, and the General Conference Mennonite Church holding to the Ris Confession. Nor was the kiss mentioned in the catechisms of the early Mennonites (Shorter Catechism, 1690, Waldeck Catechism, 1778, Roosen's Catechism, 1702).

There is no extended discussion of the holy kiss by the early Anabaptists. As has been pointed out, it signified communion to them and was observed as a symbol of fervent Christian love. However, how often the Anabaptists practiced this greeting or on what occasions we do not know. Nonetheless, we do have some clues. As has been pointed out, the "Confession of Faith According to the Holy Word of God" associated the kiss with the washing of the saints' feet, which shows antiquity in that use of the kiss by many Mennonite groups today. The kiss also obtained a place as the ordinary salutation among brethren and sisters as will be shown later. Thus is preserved, or rather revived, the apostolic twofold use of the holy kiss—ritualistic and salutatory.

The letters and incidents recorded in the Martyrs Mirror are the important primary sources for our knowledge of the uses of the holy kiss as the salutation of love between Christians. Since the book dealt exclusively with the persecutions of the brethren and sisters, the accounts of the kiss were in some relation to the events of their persecution. This does not mean that the salutation was observed only by those undergoing persecution, but rather it implies that it was a common observance by all the brethren and that it quite naturally carried over to their periods of trial and suffering, becoming a source of comfort and an expression of their unquenchable love.

There is one account of the kiss being given in prison. The early date of this account, 1546, makes it especially significant. This incident occurred in Styria, a province of Austria, and Vienna, showing that the kiss was practiced by the South German-Swiss group of Anabaptists as well as the Dutch followers of Menno. "They were then led in iron chains through Styria, and delivered into the bailey, at Vienna, to the jailer who said, 'Come, I will bring you into a vault where others of your brethren are'" (Martrys Mirror Dutch: 73; English: 474). In the prison were Hans Stautdach and  three fellow prisoners. When they met, they embraced and kissed each other and praised God, who had brought them together for the glory of His name.

One account recorded the kiss being given by two brethren at their trial: "When John Claess and Lucas Lamberts, an old man of eighty-seven years, called grandfather, came to court they greeted one another with a kiss" (Martrys' Mirror Dutch: 69; English: 471).

A number of accounts of the kiss being given at the time of execution also appeared in the Martyrs Mirror. The first was another account of Austrian Anabaptists, this time having occurred at Bruck on the Mur, in Styria. The date of this account was even earlier, 1528, just three years after the Zurich Brethren broke with Zwingli, and just one year later than the Schleitheim Confession. "A circle having been formed, they all knelt down (Acts 7:60; Acts 20:36) and earnestly prayed to God that they might finish this their evening sacrifice. They then arose and submitted to the sword. The executioner was sad; for he did not like to do it. The youngest of them all entreated his brethren, that since he felt of good cheer and bold, they should let him suffer the first pain; he then kissed them, and said, 'God bless you, my beloved brethren; today we shall all be together in Paradise" " (Martyr Mirror Dutch: 19; English: 429).

The next account was also of early date, 1544, but occurred in the province of Overijssel, Netherlands: "When the time of suffering drew nigh, Maria said: 'Dear sister, heaven is opened for us; for what we now suffer for a little while we shall forever be happy with our bridegroom.' Then they gave each other the kiss of peace. Thereupon they prayed together to God..." (Martrys Mirror Dutch: 66; English: 467). Note the interesting tendency to refer to the kiss as the "kiss of peace," which is not Biblical, but a denotation which arose in the early church. This use of the term "kiss of peace" by the early Anabaptists must be either a carry-over from the Roman Church or a result of reading the early Church Fathers. There was an account of the kiss being given by Gotthard of Nonnenberg and Peter Kramer, of the duchy of Berg on the Lower Rhine, at their execution in 1558. "When the time had come for them to die, they rose to their feet, called upon God in heaven, and as brethren in Christ, and as a token of brotherly love and unity, kissed each other with the sweet kiss of peace, as those that were united with God, and thus were beheaded standing" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 208; English: 591).

The next account concerned two men apprehended in Cologne and executed in 1562: "And thus George was compelled to be the first one to be made ready for an offering. When he was ready for death, he took brotherly leave from William and they kissed each other with a holy kiss of love. Then George was thrown overboard" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 296; English: 662).

The fervent love and unmistakable Christian witness of the Christian martyrs motivated their persecutors to attempt to prevent their witness of love at Deventer in the Netherlands in 1571. "Thus Claes was brought upon the scaffold first and he fell upon his knees to prayer, but the executioner lifted him up, for the Spaniards would not tolerate it, and cried, 'Villains, villains!' But the six preceding ones, who had been offered up first, had performed their prayers, and had not been prevented from it; for they had been allowed to come together and also to kiss one another; but since the people said so much about it, how they had prayed, and so lovingly kissed one another, they had resolved to bring only one at a time on the scaffold. Now when Claes stood at the stake, they also brought Ydse upon the scaffold and he forced his way to Claes and kissed him. Hence the Spaniards clamored again and were enraged" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 554; English: 887).

In reading the accounts of the holy kiss among the early Anabaptists there arises the problem of whether it was practiced promiscuously between the sexes. In some accounts one cannot be sure from the text whether the kiss is exchanged between men and women, in a few promiscuity is certain, and in others the kiss is definitely limited to members of the same sex. (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 106, 548; English: 503, 882).

Besides being referred to in the narration of the martyrdoms of the Anabaptist Christians, the kiss was often alluded to in the letters of the martyrs to their relatives and fellow Christians. Sometimes the kiss was referred to directly; at other times, while the word "kiss" itself did not occur, its meaning was readily inferred. The holy kiss was described in eleven narrations in the Martyrs Mirror, in 16 letters the word "kiss" appeared, while in at least 95 letters the kiss was alluded to by some term other than "kiss." Two letters from Hans Bret dated 1576 and written at Antwerp illustrate the use of the kiss as the Christian salutation in correspondence: "Thus dear brother, I would write you more, but I have no more paper now. Farewell, the Lord be with you and I greet you now, dear brother, with a holy kiss, for I think that you will see my face no more" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 734; English: 1043). In this letter Hans's use of the "holy" kiss would seem to be somewhat out of line with its general connotation given by Menno and the Strasbourg Discipline of 1568 as signifying the communion of the brotherhood, since as the title of this letter indicated, his brother "had not yet come to the knowledge of the truth." The other letter was addressed to his mother: "My dear mother, I greet you with a holy kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14), for I think that you will see me no more in this flesh nor I you, my mother."

The following two illustrations of the kiss used in correspondence were more orthodox in their brotherhood dimension, being limited to the household of faith. The first was from a letter entitled "A Letter from Jerome Segers to the Brethren and Sisters" (Antwerp, 1551): "Greet one another with a holy kiss of peace. Jude 21, 24, 25; 1 Corinthians 16:20." The second was from a letter written from Cologne in 1558 by Thomas von Imbroich: "Greet all the saints with the kiss of love, and all who love the Lord Jesus, and tell them to be kind; for God is the Hero and Captain, who so faithfully succors in time of need" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 115, 200; English: 511, 581).

A characteristic of the strong emphasis on the definition of the brotherhood and the fervent love within it was that members of the same family saw their heavenly relationship just as important or more important than their earthly relationship. Thus when Joris Wippe saluted his wife with the kiss he referred to her both as wife and as "sister in the Lord" (The Hague, 1558): "Everlasting joy, grace, and peace from God our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, and the joy of the Holy Spirit, in your heart and conscience, be with you, my beloved wife and sister in the Lord; I wish it to you as an affectionate salutation in the Lord and to all our dear children whom God has given to us; to Him be praise forever and ever. Amen" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch 205; English: 586).

The form of the greeting in these letters very often followed very closely the Biblical texts from which its use was drawn. Sometimes the Biblical references were even given by the authors: "I greet all believers with a holy kiss. Greet one another with a kiss of love." "Receive one another with a holy kiss of love." "Greet one another with a kiss of charity: Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen. 1 Peter 5:14" (Martyrs Mirror Dutch: 338, 341, 366; English: 697, 700, 711).

It is then evident that among the early Biblical Anabaptists or Mennonites the holy kiss was frequently practiced both as the common salutation among Christians and as a part of certain rituals, among which feetwashing was one. It was further evident that this kiss of peace was the sign or symbol of the communion or brotherhood, that, in essence, its use defined brotherhood.

The history of the kiss from the time of the early Anabaptists until the last century is difficult to trace because of the scruples of many groups against keeping written records. However, it was brought with the early Mennonite immigrants to America and has been preserved, so that in 1957 it was still practiced to a greater or less degree by a large portion of the North American Mennonites.

The main body of American Mennonites, the (Old) Mennonite Church composed largely of South German and Swiss immigrants, seemingly always held to the practice of the kiss. In fact, toward the end of the 19th century, Mennonite ministers were speaking of seven ordinances having been enjoined by the Bible, of which the holy kiss was one. In 1921 the General Conference of the Mennonite Church declared the kiss an ordinance to be observed by all believers, in a statement of faith entitled "Christian Fundamentals."

One early reference to the kiss by American Mennonites occurred in a letter from three ministers of Eastern Pennsylvania, Andreas Ziegler, Isaac Kolb, and Christian Funk, to several ministers of Krefeld, Germany, and Utrecht, Netherlands, dated 1773. The kiss is here mentioned as one of the privileges denied those who are disciplined for marrying outside the church: "Concerning marriages, it is not approved nor permitted that any one should marry outside the community, and in the case it occurs, the person, whether brother or sister, is notified to withdraw from the fellowship, the brotherly council, the kiss of peace, and the Lord's Supper, until they have made expiation to the community" (Mennonite Quarterly Review III, 1929: 230).

A further proof that the withholding of the brotherly kiss from transgressors was a part of church discipline in the Mennonite Church is found in an interesting decision of the committee of bishops called in to deal with the problem of Jacob Wisler in the Yellow Creek Church, Elkhart County, Indiana, dated 17 October 1871 as follows: "John M. Christophel is asked to acknowledge that he erred in greeting with the kiss one who had been set back from full fellowship by the counsel of the brotherhood."

In the (Old) Mennonite Church in 1957 the kiss was observed in a number of situations. It accompanied the feetwashing service, the reception of members into the church by baptism or reclamation, and the ordination of ministers, and was the salutation among believers in general. In all cases it was practiced only by members of the same sex. In the feetwashing service the men and women were separated, and after each brother (sister) has washed his (her) neighbor's feet the kiss was exchanged. Restriction of sex in the kiss was maintained in the reception of sisters into the church by a sister, often the bishop's wife, taking the newly baptized or restored sister by the hand and giving her the kiss. The salutatory kiss that originally was the ordinary salutation among all the brethren declined in its use until in some congregations its practice was limited to the ministers and deacons, who observed it at every church service.

The (Old) Mennonite Church through its periodicals (Herald of Truth, Gospel Witness and Gospel Herald) constantly and consistently held the ordinance of the kiss before its members and defined its meaning for them and their duty to the brotherhood and to Christ to practice it. Most of the volumes of the Gospel Herald into the 1950s contained at least one article on the kiss. Undoubtedly this fact coupled with constant preaching on the subject from the pulpit and in Sunday schools was a determining factor in the continuance of the use of the kiss in the Mennonite Church in the 1950s. The kiss was emphasized (1) as a command of the apostles, and (2) as the sign and symbol of brotherhood. The first emphasis stresses obedience to Scripture and discipleship, the legal aspect of the Gospel. The emphasis on the kiss as the sign and symbol of brotherhood stressed the freedom and spontaneity of the fellowship of the Gospel.

There was a tendency especially in the more liberal conferences of the (Old) Mennonite Church for the salutatory holy kiss to be limited to the ministers, for the lay members to observe it less often among themselves, and for ministers to observe it less often when meeting lay members than when meeting other ministers. Because of this the kiss was accused of having become "ceremonial" and having lost its original spontaneity. The secular greeting took the place of the holy kiss where the latter was dropped, aiding the breakdown of the concept of the brotherhood which led to the dropping of the use of the kiss as the common salutation. "In this age when the love of many shall wax cold, it is becoming more and more common to omit the kiss... and how cold and formal the words of the greeting, the shallow 'hello' of the world being substituted for the hearty 'God bless you,' or 'Peace be with us!'   And, oh how much encouragement we miss" (Gospel Herald 21, 1928: 498).

In contrast to the (Old) Mennonite Church, the "conservative" conferences such as Old Order Amish Mennonites, Old Order (Wisler) Mennonites, Church of God in Christ, Mennonites (Holdeman), Reformed Mennonites, and Conservative (Amish) Mennonites maintained either an absolute or a greater relative separation from all other groups and influences. In general they placed a greater emphasis on the Mennonite heritage and tradition, opposing almost all advances and thus manifesting a tendency toward maintaining a distinctive and separate culture. In this separate and controlled environment it was much easier for the brotherhood to maintain such practices as the kiss. In these groups the kiss was practiced universally in its ritualistic sense at baptism and feetwashing. As the Christian salutation it was practiced almost universally among all members, lay as well as ministers, except in the Conservative (Amish) Mennonite Conference where it was only practiced between brethren and ministers at the invitation of the ministers. There was a tendency arising in the 1950s even in such a conservative group as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, toward weakening in the practice of the kiss. In general this group of churches was not active in publication, nor did it attempt to maintain its heritage in this manner; they relied, as has been stated, on a strict separation and discipline to maintain their heritage and tradition. One striking exception to this statement was the well-written summary of doctrine published by the Reformed Mennonites entitled Christianity Defined. This book contained a well-written three-page discussion of the holy kiss, as well as discussion of a number of other areas of faith and practice.

In the General Conference Mennonite Church the practice of the kiss was very rare. No mention was made of the holy kiss in either the Handbuch für Prediger (1893) or the Minister's Manual (1950). The Eastern District which broke away from the Franconia Mennonite Conference in 1847 had but two congregations which practiced the kiss in the 1950s, both of which left the Mennonite Church communion rather recently: The Richfield, Pennsylvania congregation which joined the Eastern District of the General Conference in 1941, and the Stirling Avenue, Kitchener, Ontario congregation which joined in 1947, observed the holy kiss at feetwashing.

When the kiss was dropped in the Eastern District is uncertain, but it is significant that the kiss was not mentioned in the Ordnung der Mennonitischen Gemeinschaft, which was drawn up at the time of the break with the Franconia Conference in 1847.

The practice of the salutatory brotherly kiss among the Mennonites of Dutch-Prussian-Russian background has not been investigated. There are indications that this practice was observed quite generally during the first centuries, but was gradually confined to the ministers and such occasions as baptismal services. The final stage was that the use of the brotherly kiss was given up.  This stage was reached by all Mennonites of the Netherlands and the urban churches of Germany. Among the rural churches of Prussia, Poland, and Russia the second stage, that is, the use of the kiss among the ministers, was generally still in use in the 1950s. This was to some extent still the case among the Mennonites who came from Russia and settled in South America and Canada. Occasionally an old practice along these lines could be noticed among the Mennonites of the United States. In the 1940s when the deacons of the Friedenstal Mennonite Church at Durham, Kansas, which originated in Poland, extended a call to a minister, they bade him farewell following their visit by giving him the brotherly kiss. This was no doubt an old tradition among this group, going back to the early centuries. In the Bethel Mennonite Church, Inman, Kansas, male members were kissed by the minister when they were received into the church by baptism or church letter until the mid 1940s, when this practice was dropped.

In Russia the common use of the brotherly kiss was reintroduced, retained, and re-emphasized among the Mennonite Brethren, who originated in 1860. Among the Mennonite Brethren in America as well as the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, and Church of God in Christ, Mennonites, the practice of the salutatory brotherly kiss was used in the 1950s.

The Central District Conference of the General Conference was the result of a split in the Amish Mennonite Church in Illinois, begun in 1871 and completed in 1899. With its conservative Amish background the Central District maintained feetwashing and the kiss in connection with it. The holy kiss as the Christian salutation was also maintained in the 1950s. However, due to lack of teaching on the subject, its use was declining among many people, especially the young people.

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference (USA) was another Mennonite body which arose through a split in the Amish Mennonite Church, in 1864. In this conference the kiss was practiced at feetwashing by those who participated, but the salutatory use of the kiss has been lost.

In the Mennonite Brethren Church in the United States the kiss was not the general Christian salutation, but it was observed in feetwashing services. However, in Canada, where feetwashing has been dropped, it was observed in the communion service in the 1950s.

Among the European Mennonites the observance of the kiss has completely died out in the Netherlands and Germany, but persisted in France and Switzerland, though only as a salutatory kiss (not universally however), feetwashing having almost completely died out where it was practiced (Amish background congregations in France) and never having been practiced in Switzerland and South Germany (except scattered congregations of Amish background). In the Netherlands the kiss was observed by conservative groups like the Groningen Old Flemish into the 18th century.


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Author(s) James Reusser
Date Published 1957

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Reusser, James. "Kiss, Holy." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 30 May 2024.,_Holy&oldid=129932.

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Reusser, James. (1957). Kiss, Holy. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 May 2024, from,_Holy&oldid=129932.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 181-186. All rights reserved.

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