April 17th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Rethinking the word 'cult'

Nearly 20 years ago, 76 people lost their lives during an FBI raid near Waco, Texas. CNN's Drew Griffin looks at those events at 8 ET/PT and 11 ET/PT Sunday night in "Waco: Faith, Fear & Fire."

Editor’s note: James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he specializes in new religions. He is the coauthor of the forthcoming Saints under Siege (New York University Press).

By James T. Richardson, Special to CNN

I remember being struck by one of the early stories about 1993’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

Shortly after an initial raid by federal authorities ended in a gun battle that left 10 dead (six Davidians and four ATF agents), a lengthy story appeared in my local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal, about the history of the Davidian group, which had existed at Mount Carmel, Texas for decades.

The story noted that Branch Davidians were a spinoff sect of the Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination. The term “cult” did not appear in the story at all. And yet the headline of this front-page piece screamed “Cult Standoff in Waco” in inch-high capital letters.

Some headline writer had decided that the Davidians were in fact a cult, no matter what the story said.

The term cult also factored into the federal trials that grew out of the Branch Davidian tragedy.

Some survivors of the fire that ended the siege, which left 76 sect members dead, faced a criminal trial in 1994. Early in the trial, the defense made a motion to disallow the use of the term cult in the proceedings.

The federal judge presiding over the trial quickly rejected the motion.

I was intrigued by use of such a powerful, pejorative term to refer to the Branch Davidians, a decades-old offshoot of a Christian denomination that did not fit the definition of the type of group to which the term cult had traditionally been applied.

The term had, over the previous couple of decades, been used to refer to unpopular new religious groups like the Unification Church (the “Moonies”), Scientology, the Hare Krishna and the Children of God. These groups, although usually quite peaceful in orientation and practice, were all newer, and most were promoting religious beliefs and practices that were definitely outside the mainstream of American religious history.

But the term cult had not been used with older groups that were spinoffs of more traditional religious movements, such as the Davidians.

When used against one of the newer religious groups, which most scholars call new religious movements, the term cult suggested that such groups are not “real religions” at all, but trumped-up facsimiles designed to take advantage of allegedly gullible American youth.

Research showed that these youth were members of the best educated and most affluent generation that America had yet produced. But they had rejected American values and culture, which they viewed as racist, sexist and imperialistic, and were exercising their volition to try out some new, usually non-Western, religions. This rejection upset many parents and political leaders.

These new groups became quite unpopular and, as Americans grappled with why many joined them, a theory developed suggesting that these young people must have been brainwashed by gurus who had developed some powerful psycho-techniques unknown to the rest of us.

This assumption was derived crudely from efforts to explain what took place in the 1940s in Communist China and in the 1950s in Korean War POW situations.

Americans needed some explanation for why Chinese people came to accept Communism as their governing ideology and why a couple dozen American POWs chose to remain in Korea after the war ended.

Brainwashing became the accepted rationale, even if scholars have since asserted that this was more propaganda than real explanation. In the 1960s and onward, this same rationale came to be a useful tool to use against unpopular religious groups including, eventually, the Davidians.

This approach gained considerable traction and helped justify claims that so-called cults were not “real religions” and that therefore First Amendment protections did not apply to them or their adherents.

The term cult became a social weapon against unpopular religious groups, new or old. That’s what happened with the designation assigned in the news media to the Branch Davidians during the 1993 siege and during the 1994 criminal trial of the surviving Davidians.

Such thinking about unpopular religious groups in America was mainstreamed in our society and helped justify the kidnapping of thousands of young people out of some of the more controversial groups. A new pseudo-profession of deprogramming was born, with parents of group members paying "deprogrammers" to kidnap their kids.

Many of these young people were then forced to undergo a form of radical and coercive resocialization. The practice continued until the 1980s and still happens in other countries, including Japan.

The practice of deprogramming led to a wave of so-called cult/brainwashing cases in which former members were awarded significant damages by juries who were infused with popular anti-cult sentiments.

It took years for the courts to finally accept the fact that most of those joining new religious movements were of age, that they were exercising their own volition, and that they had rights, including religious freedom - even if they were participating in unpopular movements.

The Branch Davidians lost their criminal case and the civil cases they brought. So the legal victories eventually won by some of the controversial NRMs did not directly translate into similar outcomes for the Davidians.

But most so-called cult cases were eventually either settled or overturned on appeal, as courts recognized that “cults” and their members had rights that were associated with other religious groups.

One such case, which involved the Unification Church, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. The Unification Church aimed to overturn a Minnesota law requiring any religious group that obtains more than 50% of its funding from non-members to seek government approval before doing fundraising, and to submit annual reports on its fundraising and expenditures.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled in favor of the Unification Church, though a strong dissent questioned whether the UC had standing as a religious group to challenge the law.

So it’s clear that the application of the term cult has become a battleground, and that those opposing the spread of new religious movements have won the war over how to designate them.

But more and more courts have recognized that members of so-called cults have the same rights as other believers. I hope ordinary people are coming around to that point of view, too – and that they begin to rethink the term “cult.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James T. Richardson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Cults • History • Opinion

soundoff (960 Responses)
  1. Ed

    Why is the designation of 'cult' needed at all? Does the label contribute anything constructive about an organization? Are 'cults' denied 501(c)3 status by the government? Are other rights denied 'cults?' As we know, there are organizations not defined as cults that act irrationally and irresponsibly, or at the very least, unkindly. There are mainline 'Christian' groups with leadership that functions as a 'cult of personality,' yet their congregations believe they are functioning according to Biblical principles.

    April 18, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  2. Jeane

    When you want to really learn something, you don't parrot the arguments drawn by opinionated non-specialists. You go directly to the scholars and scientists who know what they are talking about. Also, you do not indulge in name calling or listing names of people who have stood up against know-nothing attacks by those with a for-profit agenda.

    "Cult" is a a term in religious scholarship with one legitimate meaning: a group that worships a particular deity in a particular way. "Cults" exist within religions, such as the cult of Mary in Roman Catholicism, the cult of Kali in Hinduism, the cult of temple sacrifice in Judaism.

    The term has been misappropriated by Rick Ross and others who have supported deprogrammers and has been sold to the polioe and national security agencies, but RR and colleagues are not specialists or scientists of new religious movements. NRMs are recognized by legitimate scholars and social scientists as "outsider" groups. They are dissenters and they are "subversive" bec ause they challenge conventional theologies, churches, and religions. Yet, all of them derive from these same religions.

    To call them "cults" is to perpetuate ignorance and a "one size fits all" theory that is mostly useless. To really learn about NRMs, one needs to study the very important scholarship not only of James Richardson, but of a number of scholars here and abroad who are building a fact-based set of data and analyses from the study of many cases, both modern and historical.

    It was not so long ago that people thought fire occurred because there was a mysterious substance called "phlogiston" emitted when material was heated to a certain temperature. Cult theory is the "phlogiston" of our time. Cult theory has led to major mistakes in confronting dissenter religious movements that have, in turn, led to violent and catastrophic outcomes. It was a small group of NRM scholars who helped the FBI avoid violence in the longest confrontation with an NRM in American history. It was two NRM scholars who were talking Koresh out of Mt. Carmel when the FBI field commanders and Delta Force officers talked the government into the premature "final assault" on April 19, 1993 that resulted in trauma to FBI agents and death to Davidian men, women, and children.

    We must listen to bona fide scholars and scientists, not oppose them, or more violence and death will be perpetuated.

    April 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  3. juan carr

    what is it were all searching for? its the one thing we cant live with out yet once weve attained it we cant stand the taste of of it. its never completely paletable,because by nature were completely against it, thats why its so rare whether in a cult whether in our on home or whether in goverment, it the TRUTH. and thats because in order to recieve it in its PUREST form it requires accountability. and fellow americans and folks around this globe we could have some one come to the table with all the answers to the worlds problems and we would not even vote that person in because of the curse of our selfish nature it is what it is, its our self rightousness and our hypocricy that we cling to everytime, except that is if we choose the Truth John 3:16 and yep thats when our eyes are opened where were no longer just in the world but we actually see the world, and everyone in it, where were able to appreciate life, where we sacrifice selfishness in return for peace, no greater confidence found in the universe, the only adverse result is dealing with being accountable for what and who you are to the one who created you, thats why theres so much suicide and you name all the other adverse affects that follow selfishness a ton right, so please you guys start sharing hope we dont need cults and smooth talkers just a risen savior happy Easter! to all!

    April 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  4. William Demuth

    All religions are cults.

    This is the 21st Century, lets leave the Bul**IT from the stone age in the stone age.

    Tax the churches, free the people.

    April 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  5. Alex Angilella

    This article is completely devoid of factual reasoning. The author of this article never actually defines a cult, so I am confused as to how he is to persuade us to "rethink the word". Additionally, for most of this article, the author discusses The Branch Dividians and seems to imply that they were wrongly labelled as a cult. Yet, he does not once discuss what allows him to draw that conclusion, nor does he anticipate the response of the reader to his proposition. One could reasonable expect that a reader of this article would ask the author about the stockpiling of weapons and accused child abuse commited by David Koresh. The author, however, completely ignores these actions in his article. This article was poorly written and overall unfit for any informed discussion on cults or the events at Waco, TX. I am very disappointed with CNN for featuring such flawed journalism.

    April 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  6. Keith

    Funny how cnn's videos show a fraction of the overhead infrared video. They conveniently editted out the clips showing fully automatic muzzle flashes firing from two separate locations. Both were shooting in the vicinity of the kitchen where as it happend most of the bodies were found. People just don't stay in burning building. Look at the Twin Towers, they KNEW what was going to happen when they jumped. These people, cult, looney tunes, whatever, were mowed down by the mysterious muzzle flashes. Now shut up and be good little citizens. This never happend. Forget about it. This video exists, Congress saw it. I believe I saw it on Link Tv years ago. Where you DID'NT see it was on cnn, fox news, or any other of the major networks. Ever wonder why not????

    April 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  7. Enoch

    @tommas Why would a being that large actually care about a bunch of pink monkeys on a tiny little rock?

    Well a being of that much power would have it's own reasons. How do you know what it would think like with your peanut sized brain. Idiot.

    April 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • RM

      Is this comment intended to be hilariously ironic?

      April 18, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  8. HotAirAce

    According to an article at http : // www . firstamendmentcenter . org / rel_liberty / establishment / topic.aspx?topic = tax_exemptions:

    "The Supreme Court has made clear that a tax exemption is neither prohibited nor required under the First Amendment’s free-exercise and establishment clauses. The Walz Court said that the long history of tax exemption for religious organizations in no way creates an ent!tlement to any such exemption."

    April 18, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  9. GradyPhilpott

    How can it be that a professor of sociology cannot provide an academic definition of cult? How can it be that a professor of sociology buys into the pejorative connotation of the term cult.

    Let's set the record straight. The term cult is not a pejorative in academic terms. A simple definition of a cult in sociological terms a new religious movement, often led by a charismatic leader.

    Longer, more detailed, and more accurate definitions of the term abound on the internet, along with explanations of how the term became to mean something entirely different in popular culture.

    Another note: Dictionaries are not good sources for definitions of academic terminology. Dictionaries tend to give the definitions as they are reflected in common usage, which is often a far cry from the precise academic concepts the terms represent.

    April 18, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Tohrm

      In other words, you want to twist the word "cult" to your own ends and seek to discredit anyone else. Got it.

      April 18, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  10. Muneef

    Cults could be those branches created from the original faith or those new type of religions were the religion leader becomes to take all the money of his followers and then kill them. We heard of those happening a lot in America....

    Otherwise the original religions and faiths who calls for commandments are not Cults;

    The Commandments
    [2:83] We made a covenant with the Children of Israel: "You shall not worship except GOD. You shall honor your parents and regard the relatives, the orphans, and the poor. You shall treat the people amicably. You shall observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat)." But you turned away, except a few of you, and you became averse.

    [2:84] We made a covenant with you, that you shall not shed your blood, nor shall you evict each other from your homes. You agreed and bore witness.

    [2:85] Yet, here you are killing each other, and evicting some of you from their homes, banding against them sinfully and maliciously. Even when they surrendered, you demanded ransom from them. Evicting them was prohibited for you in the first place. Do you believe in part of the scripture and disbelieve in part? What should be the retribution for those among you who do this, except humiliation in this life, and a far worse retribution on the Day of Resurrection? GOD is never unaware of anything you do.

    [2:86] It is they who bought this lowly life at the expense of the Hereafter. Consequently, the retribution is never commuted for them, nor can they be helped.
    Major Commandments
    [4:36] You shall worship GOD alone – do not associate anything with Him. You shall regard the parents, the relatives, the orphans, the poor, the related neighbor, the unrelated neighbor, the close associate, the traveling alien, and your servants. GOD does not like the arrogant show-offs.

    [4:37] The ones who are stingy, exhort the people to be stingy, and conceal what GOD has bestowed upon them from His bounties. We have prepared for the disbelievers a shameful retribution.

    [4:38] They give money to charity only to show off, while disbelieving in GOD and the Last Day. If one's companion is the devil, that is the worst companion.

    [4:39] Why do they not believe in GOD and the Last Day, and give from GOD's provisions to them? GOD is fully aware of them.
    [16:90] GOD advocates justice, charity, and regarding the relatives. And He forbids evil, vice, and transgression. He enlightens you, that you may take heed.

    April 18, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  11. Evan

    A Dialouge Against an Atheist

    Theist- How did the universe, "something", come from nothing?

    Atheist- Scientists don't believe the universe came from nothing...

    Theist- Yes, you do. There can be no states between "something" and "nothing". Either something is, or it isn't. Something cannot be, yet not be. Therefore, if there was never a time when there was nothing, there was always something. Therefore, if the universe did not come from nothing, it must have come from something. But what is this "something"? There are two options here: this "something" is either transcedent or non-transcendent. Theists believe this being is transcedent, and exists completely outside of the universe. We believe this being is eternal, but the universe it created is not, which is the only logical conclusion in this case. Atheists believe this "something" is non-transcedent and is merely part of the universe. But this is not logical. First off, something cannot create itself. Something that is part of the universe cannot create the universe. Second, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamic, a perpetual motion machine is impossible. This applies to the universe as well. If the universe has always existed, why hasn't it collapsed into a state of entropy?

    Atheist- The Second Law of Thermodynamic applies to energy, not matter. If something has always existed, that does not mean energy has always existed...

    Theist- If energy has not always existed, but matter has, that means that energy must have come into existence at some point. But doesn't this violate the Law of Conservation of Energy? If the universe did not come from nothing or something transcedent, it must be eternal, because something within the universe must have always existed. But this is violating the laws of science. If the universe did come from nothing, this is a violation of the laws of science and the laws of logic; something cannot come from nothing. To say "We don't believe a transcedent being created the universe, but we don't believe the universe came from nothing" is to throw yourself into a logical dead-end. Back to my first question: How did the universe come from nothing?

    Atheist- We don't know...

    Theist- "We don't know" isn't going to work here. There are only three options: the universe was created from nothing, the universe was created by something non-transcendent, or the universe was created by something transcendent. You yourselves have denied the universe being created from nothing, yet science and logic contradict the very idea of an eternal universe or the universe creating itself. That leaves us with only one logical option: the universe was created by something transcendent.

    Atheist- But we don't know that those are the only 3 options...

    Theist- That doesn't work either. There are no states between something and nothing; something cannot be yet not be. There can be no states between transcedent and non-transcedent; something cannot be of the universe yet not of the universe; something cannot be restricted to the laws of nature yet not restricted to the laws of nature. You can deny this, but that would be to deny the laws of science, which leads us to the question: why are you using science to defend yourself when it contradicts your reasoning? You can deny this, but that would be to deny the laws of logic, which leads to the question: why are you even debating if you cannot trust your own logical reasoning?

    Atheist- This transcedent being is not necessarily "God".

    Theist- True, but this argument is enough to dispose of atheism.

    April 18, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Buckminster Fullerene

      Am afraid your dialogue 's outcome is rigged. What if it it ain't so simple ? What if it's a "sum over histories" ? What if every possible outcome in a "multiverse" is reality ? What if "something from nothing" ie a quantum gravitational fluctuation IS the beginning ? They are just beginning to unravel the consequences of the "double slit" experiment's logical ramifications with respect to spcae-time.

      April 18, 2011 at 2:32 am |
    • Magic

      "But this is violating the laws of science."

      We do not know *all* of the laws of science... yet. Positing an untestable, unverifiable supernatural being and calling it a day is not the way to go.

      You don't know what you don't know until you know that you don't know it.

      April 18, 2011 at 3:16 am |
    • tommas

      OK so I will bend over backwards and say that there maybe a possibility for a "being" greater than our universe. Why is that untestable hypothesis important to us at the present time? In the billions of galaxies containing billions of stars (things that we do have evidence for) why are we important? Why would a being that large actually care about a bunch of pink monkeys on a tiny little rock? Oh that's right you are trying to make up anything to support your mythology that was made up by a bunch of sheep herders thousands of years ago; the only thing that allowed their and allows your small consciousness to deal with your tiny insignificant life.

      April 18, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Jason the Pendleton Rat

      @ Evan,
      We attempted to respond to your post. It was rejected as usual.
      It is posted under the Weekly News and Blog Roundup section of "skeptic.org".
      San Onofre Surfer
      Rincon Surfer Dude

      April 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Jason the Pendleton Rat

      @ Evan,
      Sorry, we should be more specific.
      Look for Jason's name.

      April 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Ihaveabridgetosellyou

      If something can't come from nothing, then where did God come from? Hmmm? Thats how you get rid of theists.

      April 27, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  12. earthtojosh

    Some of you people need to pick up a book, and actually read it! Or look at some recent court rulings involving NRMs. What this guy is saying is not news at all. People who refer to these movements as cults are dinosaurs. Wait, that's right, you guys don't believe in Dinosaurs. Just because this man is a scholar on the subject does not mean he is a cult apologist, if so, it's like the entire US are Christianity apologists. Oh yeah, and like he said, the Branch Davidians were Christian! So was another nut job named, oh, can't remember, that's right, Timothy McVeigh! The Crusaders, now those guys were some right fine gentlemen too. On and on and on, GIVE ME A BREAK PEOPLE...

    April 17, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  13. JohnLI

    Last time I was in church I did not see any guns in there.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • tommas

      Thats because the "good suits" cover the shoulder holster.

      April 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  14. Me

    Based on the true English definition of the term "cult" as given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, literally any religious belief system, strong value system, or following of a popular teacher, minister, doctor, way of life, etc. can be considered a 'cult'.

    Here is the proper definition:

    1: formal religious veneration : worship
    2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
    3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
    4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
    5 : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad

    So, yes, people who regard themselves as 'atheists' could very well be in a cult if they have a great devotion to an idea, object, movement, or work.

    The problem I am seeing over and over again in these comments and in American society as a whole is a complete and utter ignorance of parts of the English language- including the true definition of "cult".

    It is used as an epitaph towards those of differing religious beliefs by the religious and as an epitaph towards all religions by those who believe in atheism.

    The reality is that anyone could be considered as part of a cult if they believe or follow anything- even a specific diet, 'enlightening book author', or a moral code of conduct.

    While all formal religion can certainly be called cults, anyone who adheres to any way of thinking or way of life could also be considered to be an adherent to a particular cult.

    And, something for all ignorant in the English language to consider: The words "cult" and "culture" and "cultivate" share a common Latin root: Colere which means to till or care.

    Really what this boils down to is the word "cult" being used in ignorance for political purposes.

    April 17, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  15. Carl Malaskiewicz

    The problem is organized religion has been a failure with the exception of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The churches have gone off course and dont preach the Kingdom of God as the only solution. They preach th message about Jesus but they dont preach the same message that Jesus preached (the Kingdom)

    April 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  16. M22

    hotair: "Good people will do good things because it is the right thing to do, no god(s) required."

    Your responses show an amazing lack of knowledge when it comes to philosophy, history and logic.

    What counts as "good" without a god? A question at least as old as Euthyphro, yes, but important nonetheless. Is it dependent on your own desires, your wishes, how you believe the world should be?

    And how is doing "good" the "right" thing to do? If, for instance, doing wrong benefits me personally, increases my pleasure and my happiness, what reason do I have to be "good" if no unintentional consequences will befall me?

    April 17, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • JJ in CT


      You wrote: "What counts as "good" without a god? A question at least as old as Euthyphro, yes, but important nonetheless. Is it dependent on your own desires, your wishes, how you believe the world should be? And how is doing "good" the "right" thing to do? If, for instance, doing wrong benefits me personally, increases my pleasure and my happiness, what reason do I have to be "good" if no unintentional consequences will befall me?"

      Morality and the notion of "good" are human constructs, just as god and the bible were created by man. The idea of good is part of human evolution. Our morality evolved as we shaped and experinced the world around us. This can be seen in comparative anthropology; right and wrong, or good and evil vary between cultures, while there are many commonalities. Our society has rules and laws to make sure we stay within the morality we have created.

      So go ahead and do something wrong. If what you do is viewed as wrong by society, you will either have guilty feelings, pay a penalty, or spend time in jail. You may even feel like you will be going to a h-ell in the afterlife. But I wouldn't worry too much, there's no such thing as an afterlife. There are however monsters under your bed.

      April 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  17. Carl Malaskiewicz

    The problem is organized religion has been a failure with the exception of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The churches have gone off course and dont preach the Kingdom of God as the only solution. They preach th mesage about Jesus but they dont preach the same message that Jesus preached (the Kingdom)

    April 17, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  18. Lisa McPherson

    The author of this blog is a cult-apologist who is paid by those to shill for them on their behalf and testify for them in course cases .
    From http://www.apologeticsindex.org/h14.html:

    "Zablocki did not name names. But a number of professors freely admit that nontraditional religions (in most cases, the Unificationists and Scientologists) have cut them checks. The list includes some of the most prominent scholars in the discipline: Bromley, Barker, Rodney Stark of the University of Washington, Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia, and James Richardson, a sociologist of religion at the University of Nevada at Reno. All five have attended cult-subsidized conferences, and Bromley, Hadden, and Richardson have occasionally testified in court on behalf of cults or offered their services as expert witnesses against brainwashing theory. "This is an issue," Zablocki wrote sternly, "of a whole different ethical magnitude from that of taking research funding from the Methodists to find out why the collection baskets are not coming back as heavy as they used to.'"

    April 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  19. jmsdh

    A cult means a group promising personal gain which regularly uses coercive techniques on those who join or become interested. It doesn't have to be religious, but could be any group that says it's going to bring you happiness or peace of mind as long as you put control of your life in its hands. Mainstream religions don't go this far, but the Branch Davidians created enough internal violence which probably made a climate of fear to keep its members in line.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  20. Ridiculous

    The idea to re-think the cult definition is fine and all, but David Koresh was a brainwashing pedophile. The Davidians dramatically changed when he took the leadership of the group. He was a gun stockpiling charismatic leader of an easily influenced group who sacrificed their lives in the face of common sense.

    If you don't want to call them a cult, fine, but we're both going to call them deceased.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
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