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Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of his weekly audience April 10 at the Vatican.
May 23rd, 2013
03:59 PM ET

Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) -– American atheists welcomed Pope Francis’ comments that God redeems nonbelievers, saying that the new pontiff's historic outreach is helping to topple longstanding barriers.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope told worshipers at morning Mass on Wednesday. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

Francis continued, “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said that although he has been skeptical of Francis' outreach to the nonreligious, he welcomed Wednesday’s comments.

“I gather from this statement that his view of the world's religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” Speckhardt said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening."

He continued, “If other religious leaders join him, it could do much to reduce the automatic distrust and discrimination that atheists, humanists, and other nontheists so regularly face. “

Francis’ comments received a great deal of attention on social media, with a number of people asking whether the Catholic leader believes that atheists and agnostics go to heaven, too.

On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'"

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”

Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.

Although the pope's comments about salvation surprised some, bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenet of the faith.

"Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ," the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.

"He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice.  In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ."

Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Zuhlsdorf, pointing out that the pope’s comments came on the Feast of Saint Rita, the Catholic patron saint of impossible things.

“The remarks about atheists show that there is even a saint for atheists,” Pecknold said. “Including all of humanity, on this day especially, remarks like that are almost called for.”

“To stress that the gospel redeems all people, including atheists, is the teaching of the church,” he added. “This is an objective fact that the church believes.”

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said Francis' comments reflect “the interfaith and inter-community work many of us nontheists are dedicated to.”

That said, Epstein hopes that lay Catholics are listening.

“I hope Catholics, and all people hearing the pope's statement, will recognize that his words about atheists need to symbolize much more than just a curiosity or an exception to the rule,” Epstein said. “If someone thinks there are only a few atheists out there doing good just like Catholics do, that's a major misunderstanding that can lead to prejudice and discrimination.”

The pope’s comments come a few months after he told worshipers that Catholics should be close to all men and women, including those who don’t belong to any religious tradition.

"In this we feel the closeness also of those men and women who, while not belonging to any religious tradition, feel, however the need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God, and who are our precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation,” Francis said shortly after his election as pope in March.

Even atheists like David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the Catholic church, welcomed the pope’s remarks.

“While the concept of Jesus dying for atheists is wrong on many levels (especially given that Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers), I can appreciate the pope's `good faith' effort to include atheists in the moral discussion,” Silverman said.

“Atheists on the whole want no part in Catholicism, of course, but we are all interested in basic human rights.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Pope Francis • Vatican

soundoff (3,731 Responses)
  1. HotAirAce

    Anyone else think Gerry from Boyonne is AtheistsMorons' new ranting and raving, foaming-at-the-mouth christian character?

    May 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
    • Kroth the Bunny-Hammerer

      You know, we have had such a parade of mean, psychotic, vicious, deluded, nasty, crazy Christians slither through here over the years that I have begun to believe that most of them are that way deep down.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • .

      it like you is all bull sh it in all probability an atheist mole if not you yourself crying for attention

      May 23, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Sorry, wrong again – not me!

      May 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • .

      bull sh it you're enough of an ass hole to do just that

      May 23, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Projecting are we .?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  2. Pete

    Why do American Atheists care what the current president of the fairy tale club says are the new rules are, as if he weren't just another H. sapiens saying whatever his firing synapses made him say?

    May 23, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • robert

      I get what you are saying Pete, but atheists are not relieved they are going to heaven, they are relieved that the pope is not advocating hatred and persecution of atheists because of their position on god. This pope is saying that people should be judged on how they behave not what they believe which is exactly what many atheists believe. As an atheist I am very happy with this news. The world has had enough conflict over religion.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
  3. jesus was gay

    yep

    May 23, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • Ford

      Touche !!! Nothing bad about it though.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  4. NO TRESPASSING

    I kept my beliefs for myself .. so I can speak on different point of view. so please no need to judge or guess what my beliefs is. I know the atheists don't believe anything that they cannot see or they can not prove if there is one. So no one can prove to atheist if there is a GOD.. who is the god and where is the god and is the god still a live or dead, is the god a human being, is the a male or female... OK just say.. there is a god..is it away god will punish someone or let someone be dead or be killed? just for example...you are in a tornado, like last few days, happen to be all your families are alive during tornado. I am very sure you will said .."Thanks God all my families are alive" or "The God had saved my family" .. WHAT IF, your family not survived during tornado. What would you say to God? or to yourself? would be mad to God? because God did not save your family? again.. why God saves someone live but not save others live? this is good for everyone to prove to ourselves.. and to prove to atheist and to children that there is a GOG..
    IF there a god is in this universe, why every religions have different opinion about god? I hope I will hear some good answer..

    May 23, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Relax and allow your inner sense of Logic to lead you to the truth. If Logic allows us to fly to Mars and see the Earth from outer space, why is Logic not good enough to lead you in a truthful direction? If Logic brings you the food on your table and causes your children to progress and excel in their work, why is Logic not good enough to lead you in a truthful direction? For many centuries before science was allowed to flourish, religion forced people to believe illogical ideas, with pain of death if they disagreed. Why is Logic not good enough to lead you in a truthful direction? The Universe will not fail if you choose Logic over lies. Trust Logic, and be kind to your neighbor.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      There may be a God that is indifferent to us. There may not be a God. What you've been seeing in the religious people of this world is something imaginary or contrived.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  5. Colin

    I wonder what Albert Einstein thought about Catholicism and other similar beliefs?

    "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere.... Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." – Albert Einstein.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • Chad

      Albert was a deist who realized that the universe was created by an omnipotent being.

      He just felt that that omnipotent being didnt take part in humanity.

      Antony Flew had the same view.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • Kroth the Bunny-Hammerer

      That is a wildly inaccurate perversion of what Einstein said, Chad.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Chad, "He just felt that that omnipotent being didnt take part in humanity."
      Which of course makes the bible a complete crock.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Chad

      I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. - Albert Einstein, 1954

      I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings. - Albert Einstein

      Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the att itude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza's Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things - Albert Einstein

      May 23, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • Colin

      The way he was using the term "atheist" is not the way we use it now. In point of fact, Einstein was a complete atheist as we use the erm. I know he admired Spinoza and brandied the word “god” around as a metaphor for the numinous, but he certainly did not believe in the notions of life after death or a god that in any way worried itself with human beings. Indeed, he referred to this as “the god of the naïve man.” For example, in his 1954 letter to the Physicist Eric Gutkind, Einstein wrote,

      "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

      Odd that Chad cites him with apparent approval.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • Colin

      He would likely have regarded Chad's suggestion as a "lie".

      "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

      May 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • Chad

      @Colin

      "deism is the same as atheism"
      lol

      The first step for many a non-believer, is to recognize the reality that there is indeed a conscious mind behind the creation and order of our universe. Once there, the obvious question becomes, "well, why would (He) create it, then step away from it?

      of course, that's only for those willing to follow the evidence where it leads.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • Flint Fredstone

      Chad gets blisters from all the disingenuous quote-mining he does.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
    • Colin

      He also regarded Jesus' rising from the dead as absurd. It was a good example of the "childish and primitive legends" he refers to above.

      "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

      So, Chad, I guess he would regard you as a "feeble soul" for chesishing such a thought.

      Good night Chad.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      No blisters – 2.54cm (1 in) thick callouses must have already formed by now.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Chad

      @Colin "He would likely have regarded Chad's suggestion as a "lie".
      "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions...

      =>well, since I specifically said that Einstein DIDNT believe in a personal God, he would have agreed with me.. AND I suspect he would view your attempts to turn him into an atheist as quite distasteful indeed!

      Albert Einstein's religious views have been studied extensively. He said he believed in the "pantheistic" God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, while disas sociating himself from the label atheist, preferring, he said an "att itude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being." - Albert Einstein

      "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an atti tude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being. - Albert Einstein

      Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. - Albert Einstein

      The fanatical atheists...are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people'—cannot bear the music of the spheres - Albert Einstein

      May 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Chad

      @Colin "He would likely have regarded Chad's suggestion as a "lie".
      "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions...

      =>well, since I specifically said that Einstein DIDNT believe in a personal God, he would have agreed with me.. AND I suspect he would view your attempts to turn him into an atheist as quite distasteful indeed!

      Albert Einstein's religious views have been studied extensively. He said he believed in the "pantheistic" God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, while disa s sociating himself from the label atheist, preferring, he said an "att itude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being." - Albert Einstein

      "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an atti tude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being. - Albert Einstein

      May 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • Chad

      Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. - Albert Einstein

      The fanatical atheists...are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people'—cannot bear the music of the spheres - Albert Einstein

      May 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • Edna Pimples

      Interesting that Chad would put out a quote that calls his beliefs "childish" as he thinks he has trumped another.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      A conscious mind behind the origin of the Universe is a stirring thought. Why would it care where you put your penis, Chad? Why would it want things, including worship, from us and not from porpoises or ducks?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • Chad

      The first step for many a non-believer, is to recognize the reality that there is indeed a conscious mind behind the creation and order of our universe. Once there, the obvious question becomes, "well, why would (He) create it, then step away from it?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Parenthetically, how does it get to be a "He"?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Chad,
      "Once there, the obvious question becomes, "well, why would (He) create it, then step away from it?"

      Presuming you can attribute human motives to a god (which believers deny when it suits them) then as it has clearly stepped away it cannot have created the universe.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Chad,
      "The first step for many a non-believer, is to recognize the reality that there is indeed a conscious mind behind the creation and order of our universe."

      You have no evidence that there was a conscious mind behind the creation and order of our universe and ergo no evidence that it was a god, let alone your god.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  6. Bubbaray

    I think his hat is too tight.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
  7. Bryan Kirchoff

    For the atheists posting to this board, I would suggest reading Dinesh D'Souza's "What's So Great About Christianity?" and Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ". (Strobel himself is a convert from atheism.) Jennifer Fulwiler and Leah Libresco are prominent Catholic bloggers who converted from atheism. I think you will find the case for faith much more complex and substantive than the strawman critiques often presented against it.

    For the Christians posting here who are concerned that the Pope is saying "Everybody gets heaven, so it doesn't matter what you believe or do in this world", he is not. He is saying the redemptive gift of Christ's sacrifice is a gift intended for everyone. However, people can, do, and will reject that gift, and those folks are playing with (eternal) fire. The Church believes that Christ is a person's only way to salvation (whether that person knows it or not), that the Catholic Church offers the best supports and guidance for not throwing away that gift (so once one realizes that is the case, he/she becomes morally responsible for accepting or rejecting it), but that God will not punish people for ignorance that is not their fault (such as an atheist North Korean child who dies without ever having met a Christian missonary or hearing the name "Jesus Christ").

    Bryan Kirchoff
    St. Louis

    May 23, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
    • lie like a catholic

      arrest the pope, cardinals and bishops for crimes against humanity,, the destruction to children's lives worldwide.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • Colin

      Thanks Bryan. Hell has never made a lot of sense to me. Think it through. I don't have to kill, I don't have to steal, hell, I don't even have to litter. All I have to do is have a reasonable, honest and rational disbelief in the Christian god and he will inflict a grotesque penalty upon me an infinite times worse than the death penalty. And he loves me.

      Approximately one hundred and ten thousand million (110,000,000,000) people have lived on Earth. Given all those who have, over the centuries, rejected the Christian god, or who have otherwise committed mortal sins, there must be literally thousands of millions of people burning for all eternity in the cosmic oven of hell set up by your all-loving god. Some must have been burning for thousands of years by now.

      About 100,000 people die every day. There must be a constant stream of thousands of forlorn souls every day into the one way pit of hell your “all-merciful” god set up and maintains.

      But, far, far worse than sheer overwhelming numbers is the extent of the punishment. There is no way out, no parole, no time off for good behavior. You don’t just burn, you burn for all eternity. Billions of people and thousands of daily new arrivals burning for all eternity!

      No criminal justice system in the history of the Human race, even those established by the most despotic of tyrants, comes close to matching the unfathomable barbarity of your “infinitely benevolent” god.

      Hitler murdered six million Jews in his concentration camps, but compared to the Judeo-Christian god, Hitler was a bleeding-hearted wimp. A goose-stepping girlie-man. Your “all-caring” god not only burns billions more than Hitler, Pol Pot and all other dictators and tyrants added up, he keeps doing so to them for all eternity! I would not wish a bad sunburn on a person simply because they have a different religion to me, let alone fry them for all eternity.

      It is also odd that this all-loving god is also all-knowing and knows which souls will go to hell before they do. He even knows it before they are born, and yet he still creates them. He is worse than a psychopathic teenager than breeds litter after litter of kittens so he can slowly roast them in ovens.

      That is the problem with using the same deity to be both the carrot and the stick, Bryan. It gets really silly really quickly.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • sybaris

      I read Case for Christ. It's nothing more than preaching to the choir. A cheer guide for the faithful.

      Anyone with an inkling of critical analysis skills would see through Strobels drivel.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  8. JJISGOD

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3X5f3gY4iw&w=640&h=390]

    May 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  9. lie like a catholic

    religions don't believe in heaven,, if they did, they'd believe if the aborted were a real human it'd go there.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
  10. lie like a catholic

    religions call those mentally ill, sinners. They tell their children that they are born with a sin. How disgustingly awful.

    GROW UP, PLEASE!!!

    May 23, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
  11. SheilaKA

    Is this news? The Pope is only stating the "cliff notes" on Catholic teaching here. 1. Jesus died for all our sins...EVERYONEs sins. They are paid for, whether you acknowledge it or not. 2. If you are open to the Spirit and believe as a Catholic you have no choice but to enter the Church. 3. If you cannot believe, believers pray for you and hope one day you will know God or become closer to Him...but you are not condemned for not believing as long as you are open to Truth and do good.
    It is presumptuous of human beings to relegate anyone to "hell" unless there is absolutely no doubt that the person has intentionally turned their back on God and embraced evil. I submit that THAT is the unforgivable sin mentioned in scripture.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
    • Nice logic

      That would be really convincing if it weren't for the total lack of evidence for anything you say.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  12. lie like a catholic

    religions love to brainwash their children, they know it sticks longer,

    There's an organization that will help deprogram children. At last!!!

    May 23, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  13. lie like a catholic

    ...Dictators and religions, the same. Both groups want you to believe in their fabrications, the use fear and they love to control.

    Both groups destroyed innocent people in volumes throughout their history.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  14. Colin

    Gerry, I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Catholic

    May 23, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
    • lie like a catholic

      Gerry is angry because he knows there is no god and must block that reality

      May 23, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  15. Colin

    Gerry, can you help me with something? Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  16. lie like a catholic

    over 1000 child abusing priests in New York State. Most still around children and some bishops.

    NY must pass Markey CVA Bilkl to expose these abusers. Call your senator and tell them you support this Bill.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
  17. Meatwad

    I like the Pope ya'll. He wears pretty dresses and he can hide tacos in his hat!

    May 23, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
    • lie like a catholic

      he's a con man.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
  18. herejustforyou

    "Tenet," and not "tenant" of faith is correct spelling. You guys are professional writers.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  19. Victor Leigh

    Reblogged this on AreesPortal and commented:
    There is hope yet for everyone. Just curious. Did the Pope consult God on this?

    May 23, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
    • Snake Oil Bob

      Hope for everyone! Get your hope here, only costs a lifetime of weekly cash drops in the plate! Get your hope here! It's like hoping to win the lottery, except that the lottery actually exists! Get your hope here!

      May 23, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
  20. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Wow – people need to read ALL of this page:

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Evidence_for_the_historical_existence_of_Jesus_Christ

    May 23, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
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