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Christian mission in Eastern Europe.

Europe's division into East and West after World War II was conditioned by both political and ideological motives and actions. The regimes spawned by Communist ideology oppressed the peoples of Eastern Europe politically, and they also tried to eradicate all religion from people's minds and hearts. Though the Communists never succeeded either in ideology or in the field of religion, the oppression they spread did prevent the churches of Eastern Europe, whose very existence was at stake, from undertaking any missionary activity. With the regime shifts of 1989 came changes in both ideology and religion, as the countries of Eastern Europe received both political and religious freedom. The churches in each country experienced amazing growth and expansion. But what of mission on the part of the Eastern Orthodox churches--did it expand and grow? This question is the focus of the present article.

Western Christian churches have "done mission" on a large scale (especially in the last two centuries), but the forms of mission used by Western Christians have never been part of the experience of Orthodox Christian churches. Therefore, though the 1990s saw the restoration of Orthodox churches' ecclesiastical and spiritual life, there was not a corresponding resurgence of their mission. For an Orthodox Christian the word "mission" sounds strange, even unknown; the closest equivalent is "witness'--that is, believers bearing witness to Christ and his Good News among other nations and peoples.

Some Orthodox theologians hold that the Eastern churches have in fact carried out mission, both now and in the past, as far back as the early centuries of the Christian era. (1) We need to understand, however, that this mission was usually done within national or other local boundaries in which an Orthodox presence already existed. The examples usually given--the Slavic missionaries Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Russian missions of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, the missions to Japan, China, Korea, and so forth--represent dual missionary endeavors undertaken by the church and the emperor together, in which so-called caesaropapist relations between church and state are evident. Orthodox mission has always consisted primarily of "internal mission" on the part of the church in witnessing to the truth, not external ecclesiastical endeavors or missions in foreign lands, whether in the form of crusades or of some other sort. Examples exist of church planting done by local Orthodox churches in various countries on all continents today. But Orthodox churches' predominant concern continues to be internal witnessing; Orthodox missionaries are mainly engaged in the work of catechizing and liturgical "planting" of the truth in people's mind and heart.

This historic character and ethos seems to explain the fact that no substantial missionary movement has appeared within the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe since 1989. Beneath the surface of the slow and sometimes painful restoration of church life in Eastern Europe, however, we can now see tiny mission movements taking form. These are movements that engage increasing numbers of Orthodox Christians in obeying Jesus' call "Go therefore and make disciples" (Matt. 28:19), drawing them out of seclusion within the church's fence and leading them to serve their society and other peoples in their own country or abroad. Although these endeavors continue to be generally overlooked by observers, they seem to be increasing pace and are becoming more evident and influential both within the church and in society. In fact, missionary movements within the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe after 1990 may be divided into two large groups: the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church and the mission of the other Orthodox churches.

Russian Mission

The mission of the church is God's mission, reaching out toward the whole of creation and, viewed in historical perspective, carried out in practical ways by Christians in light of their local circumstances. Since true mission is ultimately God's, it cannot be "Greek" or "Italian" or "Russian." Still, mission has always been done by specific national churches and is often named after one or another national or denominational trait, such as "Russian missions" or "Protestant missions." For four centuries, until suppressed by the Communists, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) had been carrying out typically Russian and Orthodox mission. The new circumstances at the end of the twentieth century enabled the ROC to again undertake recognizably Russian and Orthodox missionary activities.

The Christian spiritual enthusiasm of clergy and laypeople in the early 1990s made possible the establishment (actually, the restoration) of a mission department within the ROC. Mission funds accumulated, along with small-scale missionary activities, and the first post-Soviet era document on mission appeared in 1995. (2) For some ten years Russian Orthodox missionaries worked to implement the requirements of the Gospel, as well as to understand the meaning of mission work at the local level. The more they advanced in doing mission, the more they found that their theological reflections on mission needed to be analyzed and summarized in theoretical missionary documents. Three important official writings give theological definition to the missionary practice that the church was already carrying out: the Concept of 1995, the Report of 2004, and the Concept of 2005. (3)

In practice, ROC mission showed itself to be an ecclesiastical activity in which Orthodox missionaries were sent to places as distant as thousands of kilometers from Moscow and Belgorod (the point of origin for the missions) to Siberia and Russia's Far East to proclaim the Gospel, to baptize, to plant churches, and to build the body of Christ--that is, the community of believers. Thousands were baptized, many hundreds of new churches were built, hundreds of new translations were made into local languages, and thousands of "new" Orthodox Christians were consolidated under the ROC's leadership. This was mission done, not on the local level, but at distances of more than 15,000 kilometers. The missionaries sent showed great dedication, and the results, mostly between 2000 and 2005, were enormous. In this effort, old methods of mission were readopted, for example, using transportation in mission by turning trains, trucks, ships, and aircraft into temples on wheels and wings; building missionary camps; and employing new approaches to indigenization and inculturation.

Consider four examples during this period of such mission using a train-temple. The first "pilgrimage" (as they are known) took place October 19-30, 2000, going to the Archangelsk region. The second, March 6-16, 2001, traveled to the Karelia region. The third and largest pilgrimage, August 7-September 2, 2001, penetrated eastern Siberia and the Far East. The fourth, December 17-25, 2001, entered the Penzensk region. Other minor missionary pilgrimages were carried out between 2002 and 2005. A car-temple (in fact, a trailer truck with a temple built into it, accompanied by three other vehicles) undertook several missionary itinerations between 2003 and 2005. The main ones took place in February and March 2003; another one, to Russia's Republics of Kalmykia and Adygeia, occurred between March 27 and April 13, 2004. Several minor traveling missions were held as well. (4)

Through missionary camps and field stations, which were built in many places throughout the country, especially in Siberia and the Far East, hundreds of new churches and chapels were erected throughout Russia's territories, and hundreds of priests were sent to serve them. These mission ventures converted thousands of people to Orthodoxy, both ethnic Russians and people from other ethnic groups and language communities. Hundreds of educational centers and schools were established by the missions to further spread the Gospel among the local people. Most of the peoples in Russia's eastern regions are of non-European cultural background, and some of them are culturally oral rather than literate, having no written language. The Orthodox missionaries found much uncultivated land to till, and they broke as much new ground as they could.

As these examples make apparent, mission was done mostly within the territory of the Russian Federation. This confirms the observation that the Orthodox do mission mostly as an internal ecclesiastical activity, not by sending out missionary personnel to foreign lands and peoples. (5) The ROC's intensive missionary efforts between 2000 and 2005 led its missionary department to reassess its activities and theoretical findings and to produce a new missionary document, "The ROC's Concept of Mission." (6) It appeared in April 2007, following vigorous discussion and exchanges of opinion and experiences.

These missionary documents are important resources not because of what they reveal about Orthodox mission theory but mostly because they describe current Russian Orthodox mission practice. They reveal the missionary fields in which the ROC is currently active; the challenges Russian society and the ROC face at present; the forms of missionary activity currently being employed by Russian Orthodox missionaries; the nature of an ROC missionary parish; the responsibilities assigned to bishops, other clergy, and laypeople in their missionary ministry; and many other top priority issues in the ROC's mission today. (7)

The Russian church's missionary documents, together with its missionary practice, cast light on certain theological issues that underlie the ROC's missionary activity. It is essential first to understand what theology is in Orthodox terms. "Christian theology is always in the last resort a means: a unity of knowledge subserving an end which transcends all knowledge. This ultimate end is union with God or deification, the theosis of the Greek Fathers," writes Vladimir Lossky. (8) Theology is not merely an abstract scholarly discipline such as is taught in Christian seminaries, colleges, and schools; theology is life itself. "In the Orthodox tradition, theology is related to life." (9) How is this possible in practical terms? It is possible only through the participation of Orthodox believers in the life of the church in their struggle to live a Christlike life. What life is this? It is a life of acquiring the Holy Spirit within ourselves. "We acquire the Holy Spirit through our celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of Holy Communion, through our participation in the sacraments, through our discipline of daily prayer, of deeds of love, and through the practice of fasting, all of which result in a Christ-like life." (10)

These postulates of the Christian faith and of the Fathers' teaching (along with other teachings of Orthodoxy) are clearly reflected in the ROC's understanding of mission. For example, the goal of mission is defined thus: "The ultimate and universal goal of the Orthodox mission is the fulfillment of God's original plan--theosis [divinization] of all the creation." (11) This ultimate goal can be achieved if specific and immediate objectives and aims of mission are being accomplished, which are defined as follows: "Mission is spreading the Orthodox faith, bringing people into the church to begin a new life in Christ, and passing on the experience of communion with God. In this, the immediate aim of mission is the organization of Eucharistic Christian communities 'to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1:8)." (12) Furthermore, the concept reveals that this can be achieved if the church catechizes people and baptizes them, brings the Christians into communion with God in the sacraments (first of all, the Holy Communion), and helps each of them become holy in order to sanctify both people and nature.

In this understanding of theory and practice (that is, of theology and the Christian life), theology becomes practice enacted in the lives of believers through their participation in the liturgical and, consequently, the mystical life of the church. So understood, theology is not something abstract and inconceivable; it is worship and life in Christ. "Theology is something in which all believers can and must participate. It is no wonder that Orthodox theology is seen as 'practical' theology, and some have commented that it is expressed more in liturgy and prayer than in dogmatic confession.... For the Orthodox, all theology is worship; all worship is theology.... The examination of Orthodox theology then must include an examination of the liturgy." (13) Thus, practicing theology means participation in the liturgical life of the church. This undergirding fact was fully acknowledged by the Orthodox tradition and is confirmed in Orthodox writings. "Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshiping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second." (14)

This explains why the liturgy and eucharistic participation are discussed at extended length in the ROC's missionary documents. It also explains why the ROC is now turning "ordinary" churches into missionary parishes all over the country, in which believers are being taught to live the Orthodox liturgical tradition in a true and most dedicated way. (15)

Mission in the Rest of Eastern Europe

As mentioned above, Orthodox Christians would consider mission simply to be witnessing to Christ in their life as Christians and in the society where they live. Mission as an active program of carrying the Gospel to lands or peoples where Jesus Christ is not known has not found yet its proper place in the practice of the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe. For this reason there are no mission departments within those churches, with the exception of the Russian and the Romanian Orthodox Churches. For the same reason missiology is not taught in Orthodox theological schools, again with the exception of Russia and Romania.

Nevertheless, the idea of connecting "mission" with witnessing about Christ is spreading more and more among believers in this part of Europe. To compensate for lack of experience and to obtain guidance in mission, they are looking to other churches, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, for models. Mission-minded clergy and laypeople participate in conferences and consultations on mission and evangelism, and Orthodox Christians in a number of parishes and dioceses undertake church initiatives that they call diakonia and, sometimes, mission. The mission ministry in which they engage is not, in fact, the same type of mission as was studied and practiced in the past or in Western churches, but it constitutes a missionary awareness that helps Orthodox Christians to reassess their presence in their respective contemporary societies. The choice of "presence" rather than stating "active participation in the lives of the people" in a country is deliberate, because in most Eastern European countries there still is no organized and socially significant movement of missionaries that seeks to see lives and whole societies transformed by the love of Jesus Christ and his presence in every person's heart.

Romania provides an example of an Orthodox church that actively participates in the lives of the Romanian people. The catechetical ministry of the church is extremely well developed, at the levels of both state education (through teaching of religious education in the secular schools as an obligatory subject) and church catechization. Social ministry is also thoughtfully and efficiently managed. The church successfully carries out mission ministry in numerous prisons, hospitals, old people's homes, orphanages, and similar settings. Mission movements, such as The Lord's Army, try to revive the traditional parish and encourage Christians to go out of their churches and to witness to their faith within the whole of Romanian society.

In the last several years Bulgaria has been seeking ways to introduce missionary elements into the Orthodox Church's ministry in the society and within itself, but with no visible success. Between 1993 and 2001 a strong Christian youth movement operated in the country in conjunction with numerous efforts to teach the basics of the Christian faith to people in the society at large. It was not a missionary movement, but it fulfilled to some extent missionary educational goals of the church. Toward the end of 2009 a mission department was opened in one diocese, and that example seems to have encouraged other dioceses to consider initiating such a department. The main thrust of the mission department has been to develop internal mission through Christian education (including education of the diocesan priesthood) and mission ministry in social institutions such as prisons, orphanages, hospitals, old people's homes, and schools for children with special needs. (16)

In 2010 a missionary document entitled "Principles of Mission: Bulgarian Orthodox Christian Perspective" appeared. It sought to summarize the experience of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and to present the main principles of mission as understood within Orthodoxy. (17) During December of that year, "Principles" was hotly discussed on a Bulgarian Christian website, and then it was proposed to the Synod of Bishops for consideration. As of September 2012 no adequate response had been given, mainly because of the pressure of time and because of fears that, if adopted, the new tasks the mission departments would be required to fulfill would increase the load on clergy, who are already overburdened. Consideration of "Principles" was also deferred because of internal problems currently facing the Bulgarian churches. (18)

Similar missionary tendencies are taking place in the other Balkan countries, as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Greek church has been organizing widespread church planting in many countries of the world, especially in Africa and North America. (19) The past twenty years have seen the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church's missionary activity, particularly through the work and devotion of Archbishop Anastasios. Christian movements resembling mission movements have been organized in Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Some of them are humanitarian Christian charities (for example, Zarebi in Georgia); others utilize the missionary potential of theological schools with their teaching staff and students. It is interesting to note that the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, the official missionary agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America, operates in Romania and Albania through its missionaries, thus raising the awareness of mission within the Orthodox communities there.

Another example of an Eastern European Orthodox missionary movement is the establishment of the Orthodox Mission Network in 2010, initiated by the Anglican Church Mission Society. The Orthodox Mission Network organized its first mission consultation in Minsk in February 2010 and another in Bulgaria in October of that year. A third consultation took place in Finland in 2011, and a fourth was held in Bucharest, November 2012. In addition, the Network cooperates with theological schools, missiologists, and mission researchers, as well as with several missionary movements in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. This activity maintains vital contacts between missionaries and keeps open dialogue with mission organizations and agencies of other Christian traditions, enabling exchange of experience and good practices in mission.

Challenges in Eastern European Mission

The timid missionary steps taken by the Eastern European Orthodox churches may in the near future lead to widespread mission initiatives in these countries and beyond their borders. The twenty years that have transpired since they received their freedom is too short a time for old attitudes to change and traditional myths to dissipate that still prevent most Orthodox churches from adequately responding to the Great Commission. Furthermore, these churches are now faced with challenges that make their missionary endeavors even more difficult. Overcoming challenges such as the following would help the Orthodox churches enormously as they seek to do mission truly in Christ's way.

Overcoming their Communist past. It is not only in Bulgaria that decades of Communist rule are bearing bitter fruit, with consequences that are currently damaging the life of the body of Christ. All other Eastern European churches also are in one way or another continuing to struggle with their past. Orthodox mission needs to become truly Christ's mission, avoiding ideological influences and aspirations to state support or to new or renewed caesaropapist relations between church and state.

Dealing appropriately with migration. Many millions of Eastern Europeans now live in countries other than their own. Over the past two decades the Orthodox churches have had difficulties with their own flocks, and now in both Eastern and Western Europe they need to respond adequately to the needs of newcomers. (20)

Giving practical expression to Orthodox theological conceptions combined with care for and attentiveness to those being helped. Many Orthodox missionary groups minister in social contexts of special need, especially among the marginalized, such as orphans, prisoners, old people, and people with disabilities. At the same time, the Orthodox understanding of what is good and what is bad or wrong is not always helpful to missionaries and their social ministry. (21) For example, missionaries may first want to help the poor, the sick, the deprived, and the imprisoned in a purely "human" way, without insisting on immediate conversion or on baptizing them, and without employing in their mission the Orthodox theological thinking that only deeds done overtly and explicitly in the name of Jesus are good, while all other deeds (even feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and so forth), if not done in the name of God, are essentially not good and are wrong. After they have helped those people, the missionaries may find ways, with the help of God, of converting or of baptizing them while building the body of Christ.

Combining the Orthodox Church's understanding and practice of mission with the understanding and practice of making a difference through missionary endeavors. Often Orthodox Christians are not able to see any distinction between their own ecclesiastical life and the external expression of this life as mission and proclamation. Orthodox missionary activities would become more evangelistic (that is, they would bear the impress of the effort to proclaim the Gospel "unto the end of the earth") if missionary outreach was considered above all to be ministry in the "dimension of difference" as articulated by Titus Presler and not simply as emphasizing matters of personal spiritual growth and growth within the Orthodox ecclesiastical community. (22)

Overcoming "the problem of the relationship between the catholicity of Orthodoxy and the parochialism of the Orthodox." (23) For Orthodox mission to be truly successful, the Orthodox churches need to express clearly their attitude toward local expressions of faith, articulating their understanding of the universality of the Gospel vis-a-vis the different "shapes" faithful response to the Gospel takes in various cultural realizations.

Engaging in ecumenical initiatives and inter-Christian dialogue. Here "ecumenical" means truly catholic, involving all Christians worldwide. Mission today is being done in a globalized world, and it cannot be purely "Russian," or "Romanian," or any other single cultural expression. Yet in many ways, mission still expresses itself too rigidly in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, or other denominational "clothing." We need to recognize the presence and missionary endeavors of the non-Orthodox churches in our own countries, as well as in the world in general. (24)


Notwithstanding their difficult past, especially under Communist rule, and the difficulties that the Eastern European Orthodox churches are currently facing, the new mission movements in Eastern Europe seem to be gaining spiritual strength and to be expanding even further beyond the borders of their countries of origin. In their activities they are seeking to keep the mission of the church as close to the mystical and liturgical roots of Christianity as possible. Orthodox missionaries are convinced that true witness to Christ can be most clearly expressed through participation in God's mission and in the Eucharistic Holy Gifts he offers to every human being who faithfully follows him in love and devotion.

The Orthodox churches offer an abundance of riches, which have been collected and preserved over the centuries. These churches need to share their treasures with other Christian churches, seeking common ground with them for true witness and true mission both within our own societies and far beyond.


(1.) See James J. Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986), 11, 19; Valentin Kozhuharov, "Christian Mission as Teaching and Liturgical Life: An Orthodox Perspective," Baptistic Theologies 2, no. 2 (Autumn 2010): 3.

(2.) "Kontseptsia vozrozhdenia missionerskoi deyatel'nosti Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi [Concept of revival of the missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church]," in Pravoslavnaya missia segodnia [Contemporary Orthodox mission], ed. Vladimir Fedorov (St. Petersburg: Apostle's City, 1999), 11-16.

(3.) Valentin Kozhuharov, Towards an Orthodox Christian Theology of Mission: An Interpretive Approach (Veliko Tarnovo: Vesta Publication House, 2006), 61.

(4.) Ibid., 28-30. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find details in English of the ROC's missionary expeditions. Details appear in the 2004 Report, which is only in Russian and has never been published. More details can be found in the ROC's missionary journal, Missionerskoe obozrenie [Missionary review], but again only in Russian.

(5.) It should be noted, however, that the mission department did send priests to three countries, Indonesia, Thailand, and Mongolia, where they are now planting new churches.

(6.) "Kontseptsia missionerskoi deyatel'nosti Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi [Concept of the missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church]," Missionerskoe obozrenie [Missionary review], no. 4 (April 2007): 4-19, hereafter cited as "Concept." The Concept, available only in Russian, can be found on the ROC mission department's official website at

(7.) These new developments in mission are discussed in more detail in Valentin Kozhuharov, "Developments in the Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church," Acta Missiologiae 2 (2009): 7-26.

(8.) Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976), 9.

(9.) Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology, 10.

(10.) John Meyendorff, "Theosis in the Eastern Christian Tradition," in Christian Spirituality: Post-Reformation and Modern, ed. Louis K. Dupre and Don E. Saliers, in collaboration with John Meyendorff (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 473.

(11.) Concept, 10.

(12.) Ibid., 11.

(13.) Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology, 10.

(14.) George Florovsky, "The Elements of Liturgy in the Orthodox Catholic Church," One Church 13, nos. 1-2 (1959): 24.

(15.) For Orthodox mission as teaching and liturgy, see Valentin Kozhuharov, "Christian Mission as Teaching and Liturgical Life," 1-45. For discussion of the principles guiding Orthodox Christian mission at the local level, see Valentin Kozhuharov, Doing Christian Mission in a Local Orthodox Church [in Bulgarian] (Veliko Tarnovo: Vesta Publication House, 2010), 39-110.

(16.) One instance of external mission was the sending of a Bulgarian Orthodox priest to Johannesburg in May 2010 to plant an Orthodox church. Unfortunately, his effort did not succeed.

(17.) The document has been published by various journals and websites. For the text in English, see Valentin Kozhuharov, "Principles of Mission: Bulgarian Orthodox Christian Perspective," Acta Missiologiae 3(2011):61-95.

(18.) One of the problems that provoked great uncertainty and chaos in the churches was the decision of the Bulgarian government at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 to reveal the secret dossiers of clergy who had been collaborating with the Communists and the secret services. To our immense shame, most leaders of both Orthodox and other Christian churches were found to be former collaborators and informants. Now the churches are seeking ways of healing and reconciliation.

(19.) Anastasios Yannoulatos, "Missionary Activities of the Eastern Churches in Central and Eastern Africa" [in Greek], Porefthendes 3 (1961): 26-31.

(20.) Together, Russia and Ukraine have had some 35 million migrants entering and leaving their countries: 12.2 million immigrants have entered Russia, and another 11.2 emigrants left it; for Ukraine, these figures are 5.26 million and 6.45 million. See Pew Research Center, Faith on the Move: The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2012), 23.

(21.) According to Vigen Guroian, a contemporary Orthodox theologian, "In modern liberalism and human rights theory, the good is autonomy. In Orthodoxy, the good is theonomy: the fulfillment of humankind is participation in and communion with the divine Life itself (2 Pet. 1:4). No temporal human good exists apart from a movement either toward or away from holiness in the company of the saints" ("Evangelism and Mission in Orthodox Tradition," in Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism, ed. John Witte, Jr., and Richard C. Martin [Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999], 238).

(22.) Orthodox theologians and missiologists could benefit greatly by developing the issue of mission and difference further. See Titus Presler, "Mission Is Ministry in the Dimension of Difference: A Definition for the Twenty-First Century," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 4 (October 2010): 195-204. The Orthodox will find his essay to be more "true Orthodox" than "Western" in its postulates.

(23.) Demetrios J. Constantelos, Christian Faith and Cultural Heritage (Boston: Somerset Hall Press, 2005), 301.

(24.) It seems that Romania is the only Eastern European country in which the churches (including the Orthodox Church) are currently engaged in ecumenical dialogue, ecumenical relations, and some forms of cooperation. See

Valentin Kozhuharov has been a missionary with the CMS at the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (2001-9) and head of the mission department of a diocese in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (2010). Since 2011 he has taught missiology and in the theological department of Plovdiv University, Plovdiv,
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Author:Kozhuharov, Valentin
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4E0EE
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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