Atheist, terminally ill, being hounded by Christians – How to deal with it?

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Discussion by: Mirelurk44

My dad, age 50, was recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and a 3 month life expectancy.

He is an anaesthetic doctor with a strong passion for natural history and biology. We are a family of atheists but my dad especially is very militant in his thinking. He's also very quiet and tolerant – He didn't protest when my mum insisted on baptising me, but refused to attend. He would never push his beliefs on to anyone, and avoids discussing his opinion with people he isn't well acquainted with. 

My mums side of the family are devout Christians and live in another state, but mum remains in contact with them. My dad hasn't spoken with them in 10 years after moving us away to be raised without religious influence. Since they've heard of my dad's condition, they've taken it upon themselves to 'save' him. They mail us books and bibles, have requested to pray with him over the phone, have advised my mum that his cancer is punishment for his atheist lifestyle, and personally warned my dad that he is destined for hell. My dad is an extremely intelligent person and I find this highly obnoxious and patronising. I KNOW that it annoys him but he will not assert himself. 

Why do these people, so distant to my dad, think it is their business? They are disrupting precious time that my dad is enjoying as an atheist, having accepted he has lived a very full and happy life. How do I politely tell these people to STOP - It would be so easy for me to cut ties completely, but they are still very important people to my mum. 

42 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve personally had to cut ties with family members because they were trying to save me from my heathen ways! My other family members are aware of the situation (the family member I am speaking of is my uncle) and I am lucky enough to have their support. I would sit down with your mother and discuss this with her first, tell her how you feel and that their pushiness is making these last precious months you get left very difficult. Ask her advice on what she thinks. Is she pushing to have him converted too or does she find this all rather obnoxious as well?

  2. We all find it equally obnoxious, but it’s such a sensitive issue at a very sensitive time – when my dad is gone, mum will not do will if she has been alienated by her family as well. Is there a way to address this without being overly confrontational? I guess I’m looking for ideas on what to say, perhaps from atheists who have been in a similar situation, or even Christians who’ve been on the receiving end of this. If I was blatant, I would love to tell these people that if it was their loved one dying, I would never as an atheist address their beliefs and say, ‘you’ve wasted your whole life praying to a non existent sky fairy and you will not go to heaven because it doesn’t exist.’ They would be outraged – It angers me that in reverse, I have to worry about upsetting THEM. It’s simply not my business, and this is simply not theirs.

  3. “We appreciate your concern for our well-being, but in this time we ask that you not say hurtful things or push your beliefs so that his last few months can be spent in peace with his family. We would like your support, but without an agenda.”

    Might work, might not. I heard all sorts of horrible things as my mom was dying (she was a super-Christian, I was sort of making a token gesture for her sake, but it was our lack of faith that was killing her, according to them). I really don’t think people really think about that sort of thing at all because they’re so stuck on an agenda. My dad basically sent out harassing emails to people when he perceived they weren’t showing enough faith that my mom would be healed, either, though he was always a bit more on the nutty end and religion didn’t help matters in that department.

    My dad constantly pressured my grandmother, his mother, to convert as well. I remember one day he came home and called all these church people to say she accepted Christ. My grandmother later told me she just wanted him to stop talking about it and leave her alone. It’s always a tactic, though not an honest one.

    • In reply to #4 by Kim Probable:

      “We appreciate your concern for our well-being, but in this time we ask that you not say hurtful things or push your beliefs so that his last few months can be spent in peace with his family. We would like your support, but without an agenda.”

      I’d second this. It is probably the case that your mother’s family are doing what they think is right in their eyes and have affection and concern for your father. It may be that they are unaware of the strength of rejection of their views and how unpleasant their doctrines are – doctrines which seem to have reduced or even incapacitated understanding and compassion (they are telling your father what he should be feeling, not standing with him in what he is feeling). If it was possible to respond in a way that reached out to that concern for your father as a person, that would be better than trying to deal with their unreason head on (which seems unlikely to change any time soon)

  4. I suppose you could always say, if you were willing to be a bit more confrontational, “Who are you to know the will of God and whether or not this is his punishment?” I guess that could open up an argument, but it may make some people pause if said in the right way.

    I’m really sorry that your family has to deal with this additional stress on top of an already difficult time. =

    • Nitya – I know.. it’s only out of respect for my mum that I bother at all – Mum doesn’t want to lose that contact, and dad just doesn’t want any drama (understandably).. The attitude is very, ‘we know it’s appalling, but don’t add fuel to the fire’ etc

      Kim Probable – ‘We would like your support, but without an agenda’. Thanks so much, I think I’ll try that for sure, sounds like something that might work. It’s just exhausting having to tip-toe around the strong beliefs of someone who has no respect for my own – if I can restrain myself, that’s definitely something I’ll go for.

  5. This is why I do not understand atheism. Your family are trying to help. Why would any of you want to think he will just rot in the ground? Now THAT is appalling. You could be praying for him, even healing him and putting God in his heart but instead you reject these people. My whole family are Christian and none of us are ever sick. This should be a wake up call. God is trying to tell you that you must take him in your hearts because otherwise you WILL go to hell. Your faith was taken by the devil and when you meet him he will laugh in your face and tell you that monkeys CAN’T give birth to humans and HE TRICKED YOU. PLEASE listen to your family. I am praying for you and your family.

    • Why would any of you want to think he will just rot in the ground? Now THAT is appalling.

      That’s you emotional response.

      You could be praying for him, even healing him and putting God in his heart but instead you reject these people.

      Why would we do that , this does not confer with any kind of evidence

      My whole family are Christian and none of us are ever sick.

      So you believe only non believers die and get sick. Really? Bad things only happen to non believers

      This should be a wake up call. God is trying to tell you that you must take him in your hearts because otherwise you WILL go to hell.

      Why do you take this as fact?

      Your faith was taken by the devil and when you meet him he will laugh in your face and tell you that monkeys CAN’T give birth to humans and HE TRICKED YOU.

      For someone to trick us , we’d have to actually see the person first.

      PLEASE listen to your family.

      Why should he listen to his family or even you? Not being smart with you , but to listen to someone and take on board what they are saying , you would have to look at their logic. How can you assess them any other way?

      In reply to #9 by OnKneesForJesus:

      This is why I do not understand atheism. Your family are trying to help. Why would any of you want to think he will just rot in the ground? Now THAT is appalling. You could be praying for him, even healing him and putting God in his heart but instead you reject these people. My whole family are Chri…

  6. I recall my mother asking me to help her select a card for an atheist family member so that it would not be offensive to him. I purchased an ideal card. She wrote a lovely message and then signed it “God Bless.” (Ugh!) Sometimes old habits die hard and people do not know any other way to deal with this type of situation. Perhaps you should tell them “We acknowledge your thoughts and concerns for my father at this crucial time in his life. As you are well aware of his atheism, perhaps it would be best to just send flowers or cook a meal. Thank you for your kindness and consideration.” Give them the benefit of the doubt and hopefully they will change their tune if you extend kindness and graciousness.

    • In reply to #11 by QuestioningKat:

      I recall my mother asking me to help her select a card for an atheist family member so that it would not be offensive to him. I purchased an ideal card. She wrote a lovely message and then signed it “God Bless.”

      My room mate often says “bless you” when I do her a favour. She is an atheist. She grew up in Alabama, so it is a hard habit to break. I don’t bother. I know she means “Thank you. I wish nice things will happen to you”

  7. Sometimes it’s good to just let things come and go. The anxiety and anger caused by not asserting oneself can be more stressful than the situation causing the stress. Maybe have a laugh instead about their behavior, realizing that they’re not likely to change. Use the bibles/books to balance a table or chair that’s uneven, or anything that will decrease the frustration.

    • As to why your relatives do this when you think about it you can almost ask it the other way: why don’t all theist relatives do this? That your relatives would act this way is actually very logical given there irrational belief system. If they really believe he is going to suffer eternal torture after he dies don’t they owe it to him to do everything possible to prevent that, even at the risk of annoying us poor fools who don’t see how we are risking our eternal souls? The fact that this is not all that common is evidence that most Christians aren’t really that serious about their beliefs.

      As to what to do, and I’m in a somewhat similar situation btw, I hate to even offer advice because each person is so different but I can tell you my thinking anyway. First (and in my case its rather different because my mom gets a lot of comfort from the church) I would say remember your dad comes before your feelings. You probably have all sorts of good reasons for letting this bother you and wanting to engage in heated arguments with your relatives. Before you do ask yourself is that really going to help your dad or is it just going to make you feel better?

      The other thing is, and this is something I realized fairly recently, you have to come to accept that the relations get switched at the end of life. Your parents become your children in essence. For me that was hard because my first instinct was always to ask my mom what she wanted and to never try and impose my judgement but more and more I came to realize I had to do that, I had to get used to giving her direction not the other way around. So in this case I would say don’t be afraid to be the gatekeeper and step in a bit if the theist relatives are getting too obnoxious.

  8. This is just normal. Christians in charge of whether I must continue to live is my #1 nightmare. Even having Christian doctors is quite nerve wracking knowing they would sooner I died. One walked out in the middle of an operation, without any explanation. I never saw him again or got an explanation. (Another doctor woke me up and said he would be continuing).

    I suppose you could get a restraining order. It would be quite a slap across the face which might make them think twice about doing that to someone else.

    You could be extremely rude: “How dare you come to see me only when I am weak, and presumably with low sales resistance to your disgusting child molestor’s cult”.

    Maybe you can prepare a visitors list. If someone is not on it, they are turned away, presumably because Dad is too weak to handle more than a handful. Hospitals might have a policy, especially if ordered by a doctor. This would be more polite.

    Perhaps you could write a short essay on why you reject Christianity and embrace atheism. Hand them each a copy as you show them the door. Fight fire with fire.

    After your dad dies, watch out for a relative who offers to handle the funeral arrangements. That invariably turns in a long long infomercial for Christianity that will turn everyone off the religion and the service.

  9. If you have tried being polite then it is time to be blunt. First, your dad does not need to take any of their calls. He lived without talking to them for ten years, he can do without them now. If you are in a position to filter his calls and mail then do so. Try to get mum to understand that dad’s peace of mind is more important than being “polite” and try get her to help filter out these calls.

    You do not need to explain yourself to these distant, rude, relatives. Just cut them off.

  10. Contemptible behavior, and as his son, you have the right to try to block them. They are, after all, only his inlaws and not his own family, and he expressly separated himself from them when he married. You are both legally and morally correct in trying to protect him from them. Of course your mother will have a primary say in the matter, and since she is about to lose her husband AND still a believer, she is of course vulnerable to their pressure. It’s an ugly situation, and the Christians here are acting like vultures. If i were in your position, I would be inclined to tell them so.

  11. What a terrible situation.

    I don’t think there is a polite way of telling people to not come visit and/or talk about religion. So don’t try and be polite. Be frank and clear. Tell them straight up. “If you talk about things that make my father upset I will ask you to leave”. Or, “if this happens again you are not welcome to come over and visit”. Or (like someone else suggested) “Auntie Sally doesn’t come over and talk about my dad going to hell and neither should you!” Don’t be afraid to hurt their feelings! In the future you can always apologize for any rudeness on your part if you so desire…and people would understand the stress you were feeling and give you a pass. If not, well then cut ties.

    Also it good that your father has someone to assert themselves on his behalf. Take pride in this role. Embrace it. Act as a blocker, a barrier, between them and your father. Imagine your father protecting you when you were a child. Imagine your father acting a a barrier between people who steer you wrong. I’m sure he took that role on with pride. I’m sure he embraced it. (When my friends father was dying, and he was going through a milder version of your situation, my friend told me this).

  12. Do what I have had to do: When envelopes of any size or shape arrive, refuse, return, or dispose of them. No need to bother opening them. It’s remarkably freeing to dump them into the nearest waste bin. Do you have caller ID? Use it and screen calls. Meanwhile, surround your dad with interesting books, etc., by nonbelievers. Perhaps there is something he still hasn’t read or watched that he’d find enjoyable. Amazon has loads of great books. Be a filter for your dad and makes his last few weeks comfortable!

  13. I once had to get a restraining order against a church, so some people just refuse to listen. Since your dad is a kind man who never wished to upset these people, maybe you should just do the same and kindly accept all the gifts and condolences with a thank you and smile. It doesn’t cost anything after all and that is probably how your dad would want it.

  14. I like flyingfsck, #20′s idea. When I was waiting on a heart cath a while back, my brother, who’s a minister, called to wish me luck and suggested that I ‘get right with god’. He was genuinely concerned for my ‘soul’. I was very polite about the ordeal. Not to mention, my bro is one of the nicest people I know, however misguided his ideas are. On the other hand, my first impulse was to suggest you to tell them to tend to their own business for your fathers sake. They are probably concerned like my brother, but out of respect, should let him go in peace. Best wishes and be strong.

  15. First of all, let me say I’m sorry about your father’s condition.

    As I see it, you have 3 general choices. First, the kill them with kindness route. Tell them all how grateful you are for all the bibles and well wishes. Second, you can ignore them.
    Third, you can tell them how warm the bibles made the room when you burned them…in other words you can be confrontational.

    Or, maybe, you could turn the tables on them and ask them how they will like it when they’re dying, when god finally decides to pass his judgment on them, you show up and tell them all the reasons why what they believe is wrong. Ask them if they’d enjoy that. Tell them your father has heard all the arguments and all the reasons he should believe and he still doesn’t. Point out to them that they’ve heard the atheist position and ask them how much they’d enjoy hearing about it ad nuaseum after they become ill.

    Good luck.

  16. So, a bit of positive update after so many good responses! Dad’s birthday was yesterday and I’d been dreading the many phone calls, letters and cards that might come with an agenda, all under the guise of ‘happy birthday’. I had a long talk with my aunt who is one of the worst with this issue. Kimprobable, I used your wording almost exactly – “We appreciate your concern for our well-being, but in this time we ask that you not say hurtful things or push your beliefs so that his last few months can be spent in peace with his family. We would like your support, but without an agenda.” She seemed quite insulted and I left the conversation feeling a bit deflated. On his birthday though, I opened her card.. It was a picture of two dinosaurs huddling on a tiny island, with Noah’s ark floating in the distance. One dinosaur is saying to the other, “shit, that was today?”. It seem’s like she might be having a laugh at herself and dad enjoyed the card. I spoke to a different aunt and said the same thing. She said she was going to send him some David Attenboroughs ‘Life on Earth” DVD’s, some of his favourites. Unfortunately when her gift arrived it was actually a book called, ‘The reason for God’ by Tim Keller, which I’d also recommend for a laugh. Dad opened it and went very red in the face, muttered a few expletives, then put it straight in the bin. Oh well…

  17. “He is destined for hell” !!!!! You know, it’s typical of religious people to believe they are entitled to do whatever they want to do and to say whatever the want to say, simply because their God has allowed them to or even has demanded them to do so. My politest reaction would be cutting off.

  18. Provide them a list of god loving people who died of terminal cancer. Your father, as it sounds, is an intelligent man and deserves to die with dignity and peace. You can probably say something like ” If there exists a GOD and afterlife, then my father will find out the truth soon. And since the GOD you pray to is all loving, forgiving GOD; then I am sure he will forgive my father for being a non-believer. But please for you own GOD’s sake, let him die in peace. This is the most terrible and testing time of our and especially his life, please don’t make it any worse. ”
    PS: if they still persist, tell them to fuck off.

  19. Take the opportunity to promote your father’s point of view by writing in your family’s local paper(s). Thank them for their kind words, thoughts, prayers and gifts. The bibles and holy books are very much appreciated, but, a donation to your father’s favorite foundation (www.rdfrs.com) would make him much happier. Add a list of books that he is interested in having in ‘Hard Copy’. Many of them are probably available from the rdfrs.com store… Encourage them to read the site and/or the books themselves as it would help them to know the man they are trying to save with their prayers, deeds and gifts. It’s difficult to help someone unless you share things like this. It sounds like he may have politely sat through a few readings for them…with them…

    • In reply to #26 by DWH:

      Take the opportunity to promote your father’s point of view by writing in your family’s local paper(s). Thank them for their kind words, thoughts, prayers and gifts. The bibles and holy books are very much appreciated, but, a donation to your father’s favorite foundation (www.rdfrs.com) would make…

      I really like this approach. You could also write to one of the many advice columnists to get your story out there.

  20. Everything said here is right, in all directions. I can’t add anything that has not already been said. You and your dad are having a hard time now. Just want to wish both of you peace and strength, and to offer my sympathy.

  21. I am still struggling with what to believe happens to a person when they die. It is like trying to explain where they originate from when you do not believe in a single Creator. I am not alone with the desire to know beginings and endings. I think that is why god was created as an attempt at an explaination.

    As an atheist, I still hope that if I were to die, a return to an earthly existance would still be possible. I just would want the earth to be different. I wouldn’t want streets made of gold or angels on street corners playing the harp. I do want church buildings unlocked forever, free food for everyone and gratis planes with wings to travel our world.

    My Dad died. He was truely a man in that he could build furniture, rebuild an engine, wire 110 & 220 with a medical degree. He also took time to impart words of wisdom to me, 1 of his 4 kids. His death just gave me time to reflect on all he brought to life. I want him back on earth because there just aren’t enough True Men here.

    • In reply to #29 by GypsySun:

      My Dad died. He was truely a man in that he could build furniture, rebuild an engine, wire 110 & 220 with a medical degree. He also took time to impart words of wisdom to me, 1 of his 4 kids. His death just gave me time to reflect on all he brought to life. I want him back on earth because there just aren’t enough True Men here.

      What we leave to those who follow us, says much about our lives and values.

      It seems your dad left a good legacy of his works, skills and his ideas.

      • It sounds a lot better than those selfish indulgent all-consuming exploiters who leave pollution, damage and poverty, to others for the present and future.
  22. Your mom needs to be firm and put her foot down in a nice way and tell them to back off for it is non of their business.

    Your father, if he is capable to speak needs to stand firm and politely tell them to back off for it is non of their business.

    If you have guts, stand up and firmly but nicely tell them to back off, for it’s not their business.

    Tell them by adding this ingredient to what I told you to do and say:

    Do To Others As You Wish The Same Be Done To You.

  23. Hi Mirelurk, I am very sorry about your Dad, it must be an incredibly tough time for you all. My advice is to be very gentle with these people, purely for the fact that as you said, your Mum will need their support when your Dad passes. Personally, I would like to tell them all to F off and not be so incredibly cruel but I appreciate how difficult that could make things for your Mum. I think you could say to them ‘Dad and I respect your beliefs and would very much appreciate it if you could respect our non-belief. We would all like to have a happy time with Dad over the next few months and if you could help us do that by steering clear of religion I would really appreciate it. Dad has had his own religious views for 50 years now and, just as your views are unlikely to change, he will not be suddenly reversing his life philosophies. We can really use your support and would like if we could work together to make this very difficult time for the whole family much smoother and as stress free as possible for Dad.’ I know it’s pretty kiss arsey but it could do the trick without offence thus saving the support network for your Mum. All the very best.

  24. When my 16 year old son was in the hospital for an appendectomy the ministers in the hospital kept coming into his room to ”pray” for him. This upset him and he didnt think he could tell them to stop annoying him so he asked me to. I told him he had every right to tell them not to come to his room. He finally told them but it took 2-3 times before they stopped. I dont like that religion thinks it has the right to push their beliefs onto kids….or anybody else.

  25. Hi, first of all I’m very sorry to hear about your dad.

    Then, about your annoying family… Well that’s a tough one. Every person is supposed to be different but when it comes to religion, especially very devoted believers, people are always the same : unshakable in their self-assigned missions, even when you clearly express that they are unwelcome, annoying and plainly rude. I’ve read your comment on how you tried to handle the situation on the phone, and about the book. It seems they just won’t budge. As was suggested, I’d recommend you screen calls and gifts from your relatives. Your dad certainly doesn’t need to receive things supposed to make him convert on his deathbed when he is promised things he loves.
    I think a key element here is your mom, she’s both the “problem” and the “solution”. I think she’s the one who could make them shut up, maybe if she’s the one who’d tell them (in a more polite way) that they are annoying and that the poor man doesn’t want to spend his last days on earth being harassed, that they should respect his wishes and let him be in peace.
    Maybe even tell them that they are, in a way, his relatives as well. That they should show him support no matter what, to make his passing as good as it can be, that the important thing is that he goes out of this world with a feeling of love and understanding. In any case, I think she has to say something to them and make them understand that even her finds their behavior is crossing a line.

    As much as I understand the anger and the need to tell them to f*** off, frankly I don’t think I could have restrained myself if I had been in your situation, it seems it’s not the solution here, at least regarding your mother. You can always try to turn their own weapons against them, telling them that they’re offensive, that they are attacking your own beliefs and that they should be respected, that they are being completely intolerant, you know that kind of usual religious defensive behavior. Maybe they’ll understand that, even if you don’t think it.
    In the end, you also have the option to cut them off : your dad well-being seems to be the priority here, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

    I hope I have been helpful here. Let us know how it goes.

  26. There have been some really great suggestions here. Another suggestion comes from a different angle. There are various sayings about how you can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control how you react to it. No one can make you angry but yourself, and your silent anger doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself. Expressions like that. Perhaps meditation can help your father. Help him prioritize his in-laws’ efforts into the grand scheme of things. If he understands what is important to him at this time, then a ton of religious books can fit into a thimble in his mind, while holding the hand of his wife can be as big as a mountain. And meditation can help with far more than just this!

    And to take an example particularly relevant to this site… there is a video on YouTube of Dawkins reading aloud his hate mail to his friends while they all laugh at it. You know he gets tons of that stuff every day!

  27. Red Dog summed it up best. To your relatives their actions are the loving thing to do. I would expect nothing less. So how do you deal with them, you don’t. Instead focus your energy on your family accepting that you can’t change everything.

    In the mean time, for the benefit of you mum, accept that your relatives intentions are pure. As well, speak with your father about his perspective on atheism/Christianity as his life draws to a close. You will need his wisdom as you support your mother after your father has passed away.

    Finally, having lost a parent to cancer I would encourage you to spend every possible minute with your Dad. Always begin and end each visit with a hug. And never say “good bye” without telling your father you love him.

  28. This happened to me when I lost my father, a closeted Agnostic all his life. When he died I was forced into observing the last unctions being performed on him. That angered me. When it ended I informed the priest: “My dad was a free-thinker and I did this for the sake of those present…not for him.”

    Don’t let that happen to you. You have every right, A HUMAN RIGHT, to observe your dad’s passing to his liking. Same if he were a believer: you would be morally responsible to hold mass, say. Stick by your guns…use that language, Christians love gun rights, apparently.

    I wish you peace and well-being in this difficult time.

    Best Wishes,
    chaz mena

  29. If practical, post them video links for atheism, and in particular the documentaries ‘Zeitgeist’ (1-3) available on Youtube.
    Your father has my deepest sympathies, but so lucky to be enlightened.

  30. Maybe you could make use of the type of action a narcologist suggested to the alcoholics trying to kick the habit of drinking – these people have to deal with the former (and may be not former) friends that insist on drinking together a shot ot two. And these friends usually start with: “If you respect me, you will drink!” So this narcologist suggested his clients to carry with them small set of chess and as soon as friends start inviting them for a drink, they should suggest a game of chess and tell that chess is very important for them. So, maybe an atheist should carry with him/her a book of some famous non-believer and suggest that religious zealots first read the book, that is important to him/her.
    I have Cowden’s disease that may kill me and I discovered it is difficult to speak with women about the need to see doctors without delay (my cancer was discovered while still stage I), because most of them start trying to persuade me, that I should become Christian,
    But even before I learned about my condition, my mum (I was a teenager then) brought me to a kind of christian shaman who told I was posessed and offered to perform exorcism as soon as I would be baptised. I turned down the offer saying I did not believe in god, but my mum suggested that I should lie. I refused. And we did not speak for about a year…..

  31. They are brainwashed, all you can do is ask for mutual tolerance.
    Tell them your father tolerates their beliefs and they should tolerate his, especially at this time.
    Tell them not to judge him because in accordance with their beliefs only God can judge him.

  32. I don’t know what you do about your situation. All I know for sure is that if you argue the point it will have no effect whatsoever because most religious people don’t own their own thoughts otherwise they wouldn’t be believers. They are always followers and have no intellectual autonomy whatsoever and therefore cannot be taken seriously.
    Darwin said “As disbelief later gradually crept over Darwin, he could “hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”
    I’m sure your Father is familiar with this statement.
    Sylwin1

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