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Evangelicals join interfaith leaders in Washington to promote religious tolerance

Panel discussion at the Alliance of Virtue conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 7, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins.

WASHINGTON (RNS) — As hundreds of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders from the United States and abroad descended on Washington for a conference on religious tolerance this week, attendees were quick to note an unexpectedly large delegation from one particular religious group: evangelical Christians.

Speakers at the “Alliance of Virtue for the Common Good” repeatedly highlighted their surprise and delight over the noticeable contingent of evangelicals among the more than 400 attendees at the glitzy, three-day series of discussions and speeches.

The presence of so many evangelicals, a group often associated with a negative view of Islam, provided a welcome backdrop for an event aimed at championing tolerance, many said.

Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College, America’s first accredited Muslim college, said the evangelical presence was especially notable given recent polling: According to a 2017 poll from Pew Research, nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals say there is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy, compared with roughly half or fewer of those in other major religious groups who express the same view.

White evangelicals were also the major religious group most supportive of President Trump’s 2017 travel ban — sometimes called a “Muslim ban” — barring immigrants and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries, according to a 2017 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute.

“The evangelicals coming took great courage, because of a lot of the attitudes within that community,” Yusuf told Religion News Service on Wednesday (Feb. 7), the conference’s last day.

At one point, Bob Roberts, an evangelical pastor at Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, asked evangelicals in the crowd to clap if they were excited about the conference and its message.

“This is new for us — it shouldn’t be new for us,” he said over the applause. “I’m not a Muslim, but I just really care about religious freedom. … The tribal way we are doing religion today is going to destroy us.”

In a separate interview with RNS, Roberts said the “older, higher levels” of evangelicalism are unlikely to embrace the message of the conference, because they “have an old worldview.” But he argued that younger evangelicals have “realized the world has shifted” and that the conference is a model for future efforts to protect religious liberty.

“Here’s something that’s really problematic about how we think about religious freedom: We get Christians together and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do it.’ That day is over,” he said. “If we don’t have conversations on religious freedom with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews — they’re wasted conversations.”

Deborah Fikes, a Texas-based Southern Baptist and former permanent representative from the World Evangelical Alliance to the United Nations, also discussed the challenges of interfaith work among conservative Christian groups.

“Growing up, Catholics were criticized, Muslims were criticized … the Methodists were criticized. … It was always such a focus on our differences,” she said during a Wednesday panel. “Yes, there are definitely obstacles (to tolerance) for evangelicals because of that culture.”

Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, center left, speaks during a panel discussion at the Alliance of Virtue conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 7, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins.

Fikes said that in her U.N. work, she observed that American military actions abroad can foster negative perceptions, especially when conflated with the belief that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” She expressed concern that the “conservative political party’s policies” in the U.S. are “really hurting the most vulnerable,” pointing to evangelical support for the Trump administration’s recent decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel — despite widespread objection among Middle Eastern Christians.

“I know that conservative Christians … are so passionate about protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East, but that one decision has greatly harmed and compromised the Christian minorities we want to protect,” she said.

The conference also touted its declaration, released Thursday, at the end of the gathering.

“Recognizing that our shared values are more important than our differences, and that we are strongest when we act together, we pledge to combine our best efforts to foster unity where there is discord, aid the impoverished, tend the vulnerable, heal the poor in spirit, and support measures that will ensure respect for the dignity of every human being,” the declaration reads in part.

It later adds: “There is no room for compulsion in religion, just as there are no legitimate grounds for excluding the followers of any religion from full and fair participation in society.”

In addition, the statement, referred to as the “Washington Declaration,” called for concrete steps: serving a billion meals to victims of violence and conflict and proposing the creation of a “multireligious body” that would “support mediation and reconciliation that will act in accordance with our shared values to build peace in the world.”

“I recommend we create an alliance from our religious traditions … to be a mediating team for reconciliation between conflicting groups,” Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and a driving force behind the gathering, said to the crowd while speaking through a translator.

During the same panel, Rabbi David Rosen, international director for the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, described the event as “an incredibly historic gathering that sets the stage for a new era.”

Other participants included Bishop Efraim Tendero, secretary-general of the World Evangelical Alliance; Timo Soini, minister for foreign affairs of Finland; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

The declaration did not mention Trump’s travel ban, and it was not clear how many attendees — if any — hailed from the Muslim-majority countries listed in the most recent iteration of the ban: Syria, Iran, Chad, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaks in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The conference also included the first public address by newly appointed U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. The former Kansas governor — who was confirmed by the Senate last month after Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote — described the conference as a model and spoke of religious freedom as the “most important foreign relations topic today.”

“This is the big one,” said Brownback, who grew up Methodist, converted to Catholicism and reportedly also attends an evangelical church. He said later: “The administration has made clear this is a foreign policy and national security objective.”

Brownback’s presence was not without controversy. Conservative outlet PJ Media published an article Tuesday criticizing the ambassador for associating with Bin Bayyah, who its authors described as a “hardline Islamic cleric” who endorsed “killing of Americans in Iraq.”

Roberts, who later said he has experience enduring pushback from fellow conservatives who disapprove of his interactions with Muslim leaders, appeared to reference the piece on Wednesday morning during a panel discussion, referring to “articles that come out from crazy people.”

“I love you, Sheikh,” he said, pointing to Bin Bayyah in the audience. “(Even) if you were a really bad person, then I’ve got a chance to reach people worse than you … why do we think making peace is with good people?”

The conference concluded a day before the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, an annual gathering of largely conservative Christians that often includes an address by the president of the United States. Both Roberts and Yusuf said they planned to attend the breakfast.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

69 Comments

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  • Hey, friend to friend, if a evangelical leader is ever going to stand in front of a group of people and say “you know, Ben makes a good point about us sometimes, I get it and we should listen more,” it will come from someone who would be a part of this group.

  • Any fired-up & die-hard follower of THE Christ Jesus (not to be mistaken for these Evangelicals in this article) should renounce the following sub-declarations of The Washington Declaration:

    (1) “[The] Call to World Peace”.

    (2) “To establish a religious and intellectual basis for the discourse of coexistence rooted in equal citizenship. … To search [every religious] scripture and tradition to find a basis and foundation for the values of mutual respect and coexistence, as well as the suppression of the specter of violence and expulsion.”

    (3) “[For] religious leaders from the Abrahamic family … [to] agree upon … a global ‘Alliance of Virtue.’ … [For] the Abrahamic faiths – given their shared values and virtues – [to be] … seeking universal virtue that crosses cultural and religious boundaries.”

    (4) “[To build on] the Marrakesh Declaration …[and] the Charter of Medina … [which was] the first contractual constitution in Islam. … The Prophet Muhammad lauded the values it was built upon and declared his willingness to partake in similar such efforts, if he were invited to do so.”

  • “This group”?

    It’s partial to Islam, Judaism & Christianity, but to Islam first and foremost. Ben in Oakland isn’t.

    Read The Washington Declaration. And weep. I did.

    You’re so easy, dude.

  • I think there is more than 1 Washington Declaration – Check the date on what you read. – I found one from 1884 and I find nothing objectionable in the statement as reported in the above article. I think even Ben would be ok with no compulsion.

  • Good point! It is the major religions that discriminate against a woman’s right to choose, equal civil and social rights for gays, abortions rights, etc. Religion has no place in politics, on the other hand, the major religions are huge voting blocs in the USA. White Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for President Trump. He did not even lose one Evangelical point in the polls after the Pussy-Grabbing tape came out, or the fact that the Trump Organization has been involved in 3500 law suits, questioning the character of the man who would be speaking on behalf of the Country.

    At the United Nations, the 57 State members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is the largest voting bloc at the UN General Assembly. That is 57 Countries that each have one vote. That is a huge chunk of democratic voting from Countries with no democracy.

  • With the exception of Israel, every Country is the Middle East and North Africa are signatories to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights:

    Article 19: “There shall be NO crime or punishment EXCEPT as provided for in the Sharia.”

    Article 24: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.”

    Article 25: “The Islamic Sharia is the ONLY source of reference for the explanation or clarification of ANY of the articles of this Declaration.”

    -Have you read the laws and severe punishments that are still on the books in these Countries for apostasy and blasphemy?

  • Do you think that Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah is going to boycott the Hajj in Mecca, a City where no non-Muslim is allowed to enter, and in a Country where Christians Arabs are not even allowed to gain citizenship?

    I am an atheist, but I believe in a balanced scale. The two holiest Cities in Islam do not permit any non-Muslims, but I am sure that Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah was livid about an Israeli Capital in the holiest City for the Jewish people.

  • ??? Since when do evangelicals support religious tolerance/? That’s precisely what they despise. Look at the ravings of FranklinBob (son of Billlybob) Graham, for example.

    Religion generally has not been especially thrilled about the idea of tolerance; it will be interesting to watch this group and see how honestly it follows through.

    That said….it is also true that there *is* a conflict between the teachings of Islam and the ideas most of us have re democracy and liberty. Islam, most obviously, has no concept of c/s separation. How many majority-Islam countries are there that support or enjoy democracy and liberty?

  • Why is it always assumed that Jews and Christians have solved all their problems and we only need interfaith outreach with Muslisms? We haven’t come close. Evanagelicals want to “love” Jews out of existnnce. Christians are still filled with anti-Jewish attitudes and don’t even realize it.

  • Thanks for your criticism, and I accept it. It was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. You may well be right.

    The problem for me is that whenever I hear most evangelicals talk about religious freedom, they seem to be saying that they get the freedom, the rest of us get the religion. Sam Brownback is a really good example of that.

    But time will tell.

  • Tolerance is wonderful, fundamental to any society I would consider worth living in. But it has to be a two-way street. Tolerance extended to those organizations, movements or sects dedicated to our destruction or subjugation through violence is inherently suicidal.

  • I looked at the Washington deClaration. I can see why it would upset you. So many positive, declarative statements, which are belied by the reality of what has been done.

    The most interesting paragraph to me was the one where they decried what they called identity politics, by which they mean identification with a particular group of people as a political movement. but at the same time, they reserved the right to identity politics for themselves becuase it suits their agenda.

    They reserve the right NOT to be defined by whatever other people say about them. But they are perfectly content to define gay people by what evangelicals think of gay people.

    “We are who we say we are, and we resist all attempts To explain us in terms of our “True” motIves and “real” agenda.”

    Well, I’ll have to say it yet again. What is sauce for the gay goose is definitely sauce for the evangelical propaganda.

  • An alliance of virtue, is a sure sign of the last days on earth. It’s finally here and cannot be stopped. Remember, Ben helped with his easy bake oven.

  • My knee is a jerk too…so we got that in common.

    When you say “the problem for me is…” that’s not your problem that’s your reality, if it was your problem you could fix it.

    I’ve seen you interact with too many people like me on this site, you’re not the guy who writes a person off just because someone stuck a evangelical label on them. You give’em time to earn your scorn:-)

    Seriously I find your criticisms objective, I just want to keep them helpful, thanks for listening.

  • Thank you. I’m glad you understand me. If only a few other people took the trouble to do so, but they are too busy…

  • Like others, I think your statements need further clarification. I can’t understand why these declarations would need to be renounced.

  • And the hostile attitudes on the other side that relationship? Or is that taboo to draw attention to?

  • There wouldn’t be any if they were not an history of persecution and contempt that goes back over a thousand years.

  • Thanks, That is a sad document.- makes me feel angry as well. So glad this doe not represent my faith community/ Have a hard enough time reading what otherwise seems to be individual ad hoc comments.

  • I’d say bay steps. And I know that there have been issues for different sects of Muslims in terms of being able to complete the Bhaji in Mecca as well.And this push is from the west. I believe you would be welcome at many mosques elsewhere. At one time, the capital of Tibet had similar restrictions -( the Forbidden City). There are certain temples in India that do not allow non-Hinus inside because of their sacred nature.( And China does not let anyone get close enough to see the 16 White pyramids even at a distance)

  • The paragraph i noted stood out to me because it was so blatant, like someone decided to say something stupid and there was no one to tell them how blatantly stupidly contradictory it was.

    And thus we come full circle to my earliest comment. Are they the same people? I have no idea. Probably not.

  • Yes, that’s the anointed narrative – but it’s based on a selective and distorted mis-reading of history. The reality is that the Jewish animus against Christians and Christianity developed at the very outset of their relationship – based on absolutely NO “history of persecution and contempt.” And some Jewish scholars have gone out of their way to acknowledge that fact:

    “Judaism is imbued with a very deep hatred toward Christianity, combined with an ignorance about it. This attitude was clearly aggravated by the Christian persecution of Jews, but is largely independent of them. In fact, it dates from the time when Christianity was still weak and was persecuted (not least by Jews), and it was shared by Jews who had never been persecuted by Christians, or who were even helped by them.” (Israel Shahak – “Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years,” p. 97)

  • We need to learn the religious beliefs of others…really learn them, participate in their rituals, do acts of service with them.

  • This goes against our established principles of standards and law, that is why the law suit against THE BAY VIEW ASSOCIATION OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, and BAY VIEW REAL ESTATE MANAGEMENT, for
    discriminatory housing practices for injuries caused by the Defendants’ pattern or practice of discriminatory conduct.

  • “I believe you would be welcome at many mosques elsewhere” –The point is that the world accepts the discriminatory practices in Islam’s two most holiest Cities, and Arabia’s practice of not allowing Christian Arabs to become citizens.

    And secondly, I would not be welcomed as someone who criticizes Islamism, political Islam, and Islamic sharia.

  • Do you even know what’s involved in “participat[ing] in their rituals” and what happens to you once you do that? You don’t, ob(li)viously.

  • Doing “an alliance of virtue” is as old as humanity itself, as in same old, same old. “The last days on earth”, however, will pale it in comparison.

  • Calvinists in the Netherlands pioneered religious tolerance during the Reformation, which the Jews appreciated very much.

    Calvinists were the early Evangelicals, you know.

    Oh, that’s right, you don’t know, ob(li)viously.

  • And so let’s just Islamicize ourselves through this Washington Declaration business, because it sounds non-Sharia-like? Yeah, right. This guy what’s his name, Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, is up to something not kosher.

  • Catholics have attended our Oneg Shabbat and had wine and challah in my shul. I have attended mass. My friend is a Baptist ministerand I have attended her church. My soul has not been harmed. I do not kneel or take communion.

  • The day Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah and his oh-yeah-right-oh-so-progressive Muslim buddies embrace LGTBQs into the fold, is when Islam is no more. And yet, and yet, what’s he’s doing here in Washington is just another much needed PR for that religion and all Muslims.

    Which reminds me of The Clash’s song: “The shareef don’t like it / Rockin’ the Casbah / Rock the Casbah”

    What these Evangelicals doing here, though, goes only to show Evangelicalism isn’t monolithic, standard-issue sectarianism. Remember those snake-handling Pentecostals covered by RNS the other day? Yup, me & my people of faith are all that. Going nowhere yet ubiquitously so!

    I know I’m not saying anything here as per the usual. Sorry. But you do have that wonderful effect on me, ‘bruh! Ha ha.

  • Here’s IHOP’s Anytime Lunch menu:

    Chicken Nuggets with Applesauce
    Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Applesauce
    Jr. Cheeseburger Slides with Applesauce
    Jr. Chicken & Waffles
    Macaroni & Cheese with Applesauce
    Add Side:
    Cheesy Eggs
    Sausage
    Sliced Banana
    Bacon
    Turkey Bacon
    Yogurt Tube
    Seasonal Mixed Fruit:
    Pineapple, apples, oranges & grapes
    Honeydew, watermelon, pineapple & grapes
    Pineapple, apples, oranges, strawberries
    Pineapple, honeydew, oranges, grapes
    Motts Applesauce

    Which to you are all the same as:

    (1) “[The] Call to World Peace”.

    (2) “To establish a religious and intellectual basis for the discourse of coexistence rooted in equal citizenship. … To search [every religious] scripture and tradition to find a basis and foundation for the values of mutual respect and coexistence, as well as the suppression of the specter of violence and expulsion.”

    (3) “[For] religious leaders from the Abrahamic family … [to] agree upon … a global ‘Alliance of Virtue.’ … [For] the Abrahamic faiths – given their shared values and virtues – [to be] … seeking universal virtue that crosses cultural and religious boundaries.”

    (4) “[To build on] the Marrakesh Declaration …[and] the Charter of Medina … [which was] the first contractual constitution in Islam. … The Prophet Muhammad lauded the values it was built upon and declared his willingness to partake in similar such efforts, if he were invited to do so.”

    Yup – U R EZ – alright!

  • “I do no kneel or take communion”?! I thought you said, You “participate in their rituals”. Must be a typo or something, hmm?

  • You are mocking by exaggeration. Attending does not equal converting. I attend and that is participation.

  • Evangelicals seem to have forgotten Jesus’s circumcision. Jesus was a Jew, lives as one, died as one >2000 years ago.

  • I am sure he is on somebody’s radar.

    We in the US are not innocent either. President Trump just OKed billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Out of the 61 groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, the overwhelming majority are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups.

    Business is Business!

  • Alright, so all you meant to say is, which in my case would be – and it’s all true, by the way, that I’m a born-again Christian who’ve “participated” in Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Coptic, Gay Christian, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon “rituals”. So no biggee then. Not as a biggee as what this sheikh guy was hoping for.

    Which means you’re still not getting the real message from him. Not computing.

  • There you go. (Hey this is the 1st time you & I connect!) And meanwhile US has been propping up all moderate Muslim leaders, motivational speakers and the like. This guy, too, apparently. So too that what’s-his-name in Indonesia. And that one who was covered by RNS with his big purchase of a campus in California for his progressive Islam educational programs.

    Someone has been very, very busy. Something for what Bush Sr. once announced prior to the 1st Iraq Invasion.

    NWO is the abbreviation for that.

    Yeah good luck with that.

  • One of my profs was editor of a scholarly New Testament review and translator of Mark’s gospel. He also knew Israeli politics better than I do. He would pace the classroom doing instantaneous Greek English translations from the NT. We became friends and, when I developed breast cancer, I was not too proud to ask for his prayers. I like to think they worked. In the other side, when a non Jewish friend is seriously ill, I out his/her name on a synagogue minyans prayer list.

  • The West has always done business with Middle East and Eastern dictators and totalitarian governments with questionable human rights practices, otherwise no business would get done in that part of the world. And visa versa!

    Among private Arab investment groups, Investcorp is joined by a handful of large, well-known concerns. One of the most successful is the Olayan Group, a multibillion-dollar privately held organization holds stock in many companies, including the group’s international partners are AlphaGraphics, BP Solar, Credit Suisse, Carrefour, HSBC, JP Morgan, Chase Manhattan, Coca-Cola, Bechtel, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Kimberly-Clark, Sama Airlines, Colgate-Palmolive, CS First Boston, Toshiba, Xerox, Burger King, Kraft Foods, Baxter International, Occidental Petroleum, Cardinal Health, Scania AB and much more.

  • Evangelicals promoting religious freedom? Sure thing, now let me introduce you to this investment scheme developed by Bernie Madoff. Just don’t forget to thump on the KJ version of the Bible while wrapped in the US flag. What a bunch of lying scum. I’m sick & tired of the fundies/evangelicals with their false claims of being Christians and patriots as they are neither.

  • Israel Shahak is a chemistry professor! He cherry picks his words and doesn’t put them in context. He quotes something hateful from the Talmud, but leaves out the response where that comment is repudiated.

  • “Israel Shahak is a chemistry professor…”

    …AND a Holocaust survivor (Belsen Camp)… AND an immigrant to Israel before it was Israel (when it was still “British Mandated Palestine”)… AND a dedicated student of Jewish history and scripture… AND a public intellectual… AND a Human Rights activist… AND for 20 years, head of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights.

    But this discussion is not about Dr. Shahak, or the validity of his credentials to speak authoritatively. There really is no historical debate about when the religious antagonism arose between Judaism and Christianity – it arose immediately, based on Jesus’s unambiguous claim to BE the Messiah promised in Jewish prophecy. That claim fundamentally threatened the power-structure of Rabbinic Judaism, and it provoked an immediate response of rejection from the Jewish religious authorities. The hostile relations between Judaism and Christianity didn’t begin in the Middle Ages with the Christian persecution of Jews; they began right after Jesus’s death (and resurrection) with the stoning of Deacon Stephen (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6). The antagonism between them began, not with the later, Medieval, gentile Christian rejection of Jews, but with the instantaneous Jewish rejection of Christ’s central claim – and it has therefore existed from the very beginning of their relationship.

  • So, your problem with Jews is really that they rejected Jesus as the Messiah. They had very good reasons to reject Jesus as the Messiah. The Messiah is supposed to bring peace, love and understanding. I have not seen any evidence that that has happened. Also, the Messiah was never a personal savior. There are prayers in our liturgy, that say, “God we have no savior but you.”

  • Forgive me. I mean no disrespect. Nor insensitivity.

    I think your practices of religious tolerances are admirable, actually.

    (Which is not what sheikh is all for, trust me.)

  • The matter of Jesus’s Messiaship is more than “my problem with the Jews;” it’s THE issue that has divided Christianity from Judaism and set the two religions at odds with one another – not only over the centuries, but from day one of their relationship.

    Which brings us back to the original point of our discussion, which was your claim that Jewish hostility to Christianity only developed as a defensive reaction to the Christian persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages – i.e., that Jews only grew to dislike Christians because they had been victimized by Christians.

    But in fact, the theological opposition (and the accompanying hostility) between them was not only mutual, it was instantaneous. Here’s the reality that all available history confirms: when the Jews held the upper hand of political power (or were connected to those who did – e.g., Rome) they persecuted Christians; once that situation reversed itself, and “Rome” became “Christendom,” then Christians persecuted Jews. [In both instances, that was a case of underlying human nature at work – energizing the epi-phenominal cases of “religion” as such.]

    If we can both agree that both behaviors are equally reprehensible, then Jewish-Christian dialogue perhaps has somewhere to go. If not, the best we can hope for is “co-existence” So, now let me return to the original point of this article, and ask: do you think it’s possible to achieve “co-existence” in a way that qualifies as “tolerance?”

  • If you read the gospels and subsequent patriotic literature, the claims were made FOR him postmortem. He was the son of man who got remade into a human sacrifice, something abhorrent to Judaism. He then became, in quick succession, son of God then, at Chalcedon, God made man.

  • In every generation, I’m told, there is someone of sufficient character that he or she could become the Messiah if God chooses. It is God’s choice. Also, if the Messiah is actually chosen his work may not be visible until after his death. Wars may be ended or not started. Business will become more honest Medical care may become more affordable…all gradually. So we may see the golden era come in over ten or twenty years after the Messiah died peacefully in bed surrounded by his grandchildren.

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