Church bell

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Cutaway drawing of a church bell, showing construction. Church bell cutaway.png
Cutaway drawing of a church bell, showing construction.
Church bell ringing in Aldeboarn, Friesland (Frisia), the Netherlands, June 2022.

A church bell in Christian architecture is a bell which is rung in a church for a variety of religious purposes, and can be heard outside the building. Traditionally they are used to call worshippers to the church for a communal service, and to announce the fixed times of daily Christian prayer, called the canonical hours, which number seven and are contained in breviaries. They are also rung on special occasions such as a wedding, or a funeral service. In some religious traditions they are used within the liturgy of the church service to signify to people that a particular part of the service has been reached. [1] The ringing of church bells, in the Christian tradition, is also believed to drive out demons. [2] [3] [4]


The traditional European church bell (see cutaway drawing) used in Christian churches worldwide consists of a cup-shaped metal resonator with a pivoted clapper hanging inside which strikes the sides when the bell is swung. It is hung within a steeple or belltower of a church or religious building, [5] so the sound can reach a wide area. Such bells are either fixed in position ("hung dead") or hung from a pivoted beam (the "headstock") so they can swing to and fro. A rope hangs from a lever or wheel attached to the headstock, and when the bell ringer pulls on the rope the bell swings back and forth and the clapper hits the inside, sounding the bell. Bells that are hung dead are normally sounded by hitting the sound bow with a hammer or occasionally by a rope which pulls the internal clapper against the bell.

A church may have a single bell, or a collection of bells which are tuned to a common scale. They may be stationary and chimed, rung randomly by swinging through a small arc, or swung through a full circle to enable the high degree of control of English change ringing.

Before modern communications, church bells were a common way to call the community together for all purposes, both sacred and secular.

Uses and traditions

Call to prayer

Oriental Orthodox Christians, such as Copts and Indians, use a breviary such as the Agpeya and Shehimo to pray the canonical hours seven times a day while facing in the eastward direction; church bells are tolled, especially in monasteries, to mark these seven fixed prayer times. [6] [7]

In Christianity, some churches ring their church bells from belltowers three times a day, at 9 am, 12 pm and 3 pm to summon the Christian faithful to recite the Lord's Prayer; [8] [9] [10] the injunction to pray the Lord's prayer thrice daily was given in Didache 8, 2 f., [11] [12] [13] which, in turn, was influenced by the Jewish practice of praying thrice daily found in the Old Testament, specifically in Psalm 55:17, which suggests "evening and morning and at noon", and Daniel 6:10, in which the prophet Daniel prays thrice a day. [11] [12] [14] [15] The early Christians thus came to pray the Lord's Prayer at 9 am, 12 pm and 3 pm. [16]

The new bells of Notre Dame de Paris on display in the nave in February 2013 before being hung in the towers of the cathedral. Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris nef nouvelles cloches.jpg
The new bells of Notre Dame de Paris on display in the nave in February 2013 before being hung in the towers of the cathedral.

Many Catholic Christian churches ring their bells thrice a day, at 6 am, 12 pm, and 6 pm to call the faithful to recite the Angelus, a prayer recited in honour of the Incarnation of God. [17] [18]

Some Protestant Christian Churches ring church bells during the congregational recitation of the Lord's Prayer, after the sermon, in order to alert those who are unable to be present to "unite themselves in spirit with the congregation". [19] [20]

In many historic Christian Churches, church bells are also rung on All Hallows' Eve, [21] as well as during the processions of Candlemas and Palm Sunday; [22] the only time of the Christian Year when church bells are not rung include Maundy Thursday through the Easter Vigil. [23] The Christian tradition of the ringing of church bells from a belltower is analogous to the Islamic tradition of the adhan from a minaret. [24] [25]

Call to worship

Most Christian denominations ring church bells to call the faithful to worship, signalling the start of a mass or service of worship. [19] [26]

Example of full-circle bells in England in the "up" position. St Bees bells in up position.jpg
Example of full-circle bells in England in the "up" position.

In the United Kingdom predominantly in the Anglican church, there is a strong tradition of change ringing on full-circle tower bells for about half an hour before a service. This originated from the early 17th century when bell ringers found that swinging a bell through a large arc gave more control over the time between successive strikes of the clapper. This culminated in ringing bells through a full circle, which let ringers easily produce different striking sequences; known as changes.

Exorcism of demons

In Christianity, the ringing of church bells is traditionally believed to drive out demons and other unclean spirits. [2] [27] [4] Inscriptions on church bells relating to this purpose of church bells, as well as the purpose of serving as a call to prayer and worship, were customary, for example "the sound of this bell vanquishes tempests, repels demons, and summons men". [3] Some churches have several bells with the justification that "the more bells a church had, the more loudly they rang, and the greater the distance over which they could be heard, the less likely it was that evil forces would trouble the parish." [27]

Funeral and memorial ringing

English style full circle bell with clapper half-muffled. A leather muffle is put over one side only of the clapper ball. This gives a loud strike, then a muffled strike alternately. Half muffled bell.jpg
English style full circle bell with clapper half-muffled. A leather muffle is put over one side only of the clapper ball. This gives a loud strike, then a muffled strike alternately.

The ringing of a church bell in the English tradition to announce a death is called a death knell. The pattern of striking depended on the person who had died; for example in the counties of Kent and Surrey in England it was customary to ring three times three strokes for a man and three times two for a woman, with a varying usage for children. [28] The age of the deceased was then rung out. In small settlements this could effectively identify who had just died. [29]

There were three occasions surrounding a death when bells could be rung. There was the "Passing Bell" to warn of impending death, the second the Death Knell to announce the death, and the last was the "Lych Bell", or "Corpse Bell" which was rung at the funeral as the procession approached the church. [29] This latter is known today as the Funeral toll.

A more modern tradition where there are full-circle bells is to use "half-muffles" when sounding one bell as a tolled bell, or all the bells in change-ringing. This means a leather muffle is placed on the clapper of each bell so that there is a loud "open" strike followed by a muffled strike, which has a very sonorous and mournful effect. The tradition in the United Kingdom is that bells are only fully muffled for the death of a sovereign. A slight variant on this rule occurred in 2015 when the bones of Richard III of England were interred in Leicester Cathedral 532 years after his death. [30]

Sanctus bells

The sacring ring or Gloria wheels used at the St. Jude Thaddeus Church in the former Spanish colony of the Philippines. Sacring ring of St. Jude Thaddeus Church in San Leonardo, Nueva Ecija.jpg
The sacring ring or Gloria wheels used at the St. Jude Thaddeus Church in the former Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The term "Sanctus bell" traditionally referred to a bell suspended in a bell-cot at the apex of the nave roof, over the chancel arch, or hung in the church tower, in medieval churches. This bell was rung at the singing of the Sanctus and again at the elevation of the consecrated elements, to indicate to those not present in the building that the moment of consecration had been reached. The practice and the term remain in common use in many Anglican churches.

Within the body of a church the function of a sanctus bell can also be performed by a small hand bell or set of such bells (called altar bells) rung shortly before the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and again when the consecrated elements are shown to the people. [31] Sacring rings or "Gloria wheels" are commonly used in Catholic churches in Spain and its former colonies for this purpose. [32]

Orthodox Church

A church bell of the Alexander Nevsky and the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Tampere, Finland Tampereen ortodoksinen kirkko 4 ulkoseinan ikoni ja kello.jpg
A church bell of the Alexander Nevsky and the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Tampere, Finland

In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a long and complex history of bell ringing, with particular bells being rung in particular ways to signify different parts of the divine services, Funeral tolls, etc. This custom is particularly sophisticated in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian bells are usually stationary, and are sounded by pulling on a rope that is attached to the clapper so that it will strike the inside of the bell.[ citation needed ]

Victory Celebration

The noon church bell tolling in Europe has a specific historical significance that has its roots in the Siege of Belgrade by the Ottomans in 1456. Initially, the bell ringing was intended as a call to prayer for the victory of the defenders of Belgrade. However, because in many European countries the news of victory arrived before the order for prayer, the ringing of the church bells was believed to be in celebration of the victory. As a result, the significance of noon bell ringing is now a commemoration of John Hunyadi's victory against the Turks. [33]

Other uses

Clock chimes

Some churches have a clock chime which uses a turret clock to broadcast the time by striking the hours and sometimes the quarters. A well-known musical striking pattern is the Westminster Quarters. This is only done when the bells are stationary, and the clock mechanism actuates hammers striking on the outside of the sound-bows of the bells. In the cases of bells which are normally swung for other ringing, there is a manual lock-out mechanism which prevents the hammers from operating whilst the bells are being rung.


In World War II in Great Britain, all church bells were silenced, to ring only to inform of an invasion by enemy troops. [34] However this ban was lifted temporarily in 1942 by order of Winston Churchill. Starting with Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943, the Control of Noise (Defence) (No. 2) Order, 1943, allowed that church bells could be rung to summon worshippers to church on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. [35] [36] On May 27, 1943, all restrictions were removed. [37]

In the 2021 German floods it was reported that church bells were rung to warn inhabitants of coming floods. [38] In Beyenburg in Wuppertal the last friar of Steinhaus Abbey rang the storm bells after other systems failed. [39] Some church bells are being used in England for similar purposes. [40]

Design and ringing technique

Parts of a Bell.svg
Parts of a typical tower bell hung for swinging: 1. yoke, or headstock2. canons,3. crown,4. shoulder,5. waist,6. sound bow,7. lip,8. mouth,9. clapper,10. bead line
Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing. The bell can swing through just over a full circle in alternate directions. English full circle bell mechanism.png
Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing. The bell can swing through just over a full circle in alternate directions.

Christian church bells have the form of a cup-shaped cast metal resonator with a flared thickened rim, and a pivoted clapper hanging from its centre inside. It is usually mounted high in a bell tower on top of the church, so it can be heard by the surrounding community. The bell is suspended from a headstock which can swing on bearings. A rope is tied to a wheel or lever on the headstock, and hangs down to the bell ringer. To ring the bell, the ringer pulls on the rope, swinging the bell. The motion causes the clapper to strike the inside of the bell rim as it swings, thereby sounding the bell. Some bells have full-circle wheels, which is used to swing the bell through a larger arc, such as in the United Kingdom where full- circle ringing is practised.

Bells which are not swung are "chimed", which means they are struck by an external hammer, or by a rope attached to the internal clapper, which is the tradition in Russia.

Blessing of bells

Ceremony of blessing of the bell in Hungary Vinko Puljic u Podmilacju 5838.JPG
Ceremony of blessing of the bell in Hungary

In some churches, bells are often blessed before they are hung.

In the Roman Catholic Church the name Baptism of Bells has been given to the ceremonial blessing of church bells, at least in France, since the eleventh century. It is derived from the washing of the bell with holy water by the bishop, before he anoints it with the "oil of the infirm" without and with chrism within; a fuming censer is placed under it and the bishop prays that these sacramentals of the Church may, at the sound of the bell, put the demons to flight, protect from storms, and call the faithful to prayer.[ citation needed ]


Before the introduction of church bells into the Christian Church, different methods were used to call the worshippers: playing trumpets, hitting wooden planks, shouting, or using a courier. [41] In AD 604, Pope Sabinian officially sanctioned the usage of bells. [42] [43] These tintinnabula were made from forged metal and did not have large dimensions. [41] Larger bells were made at the end of the 7th and during the 8th century by casting metal originating from Campania. The bells consequently took the name of campana and nola from the eponymous city in the region. [41] This would explain the apparently erroneous attribution of the origin of church bells to Paulinus of Nola in AD 400. [41] [42] [44] By the early Middle Ages, church bells became common in Europe. [45] They were first common in northern Europe, reflecting Celtic influence, especially that of Irish missionaries. [45] Before the use of church bells, Greek monasteries would ring a flat metal plate (see semantron ) to announce services. [45] The signa and campanae used to announce services before Irish influence may have been flat plates like the semantron rather than bells. [45] The oldest surviving circle of bells in Great Britain is housed in St Lawrence Church, Ipswich. [46]

In literature

The evocative sound of church bells has inspired many writers, both in poetry and prose. One example is an early poem by the English poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon entitled simply, Wikisource-logo.svg Bells .

Controversies about noise

The sound of church bells is capable of causing noise that interrupts or prevents people from sleeping. A 2013 study from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found that 'An estimated 2.5-3.5 percent of the population in the Canton of Zurich experiences at least one additional awakening per night due to church bell noise.' It concluded that 'The number of awakenings could be reduced by more than 99 percent by, for example, suspending church bell ringing between midnight and 06 h in the morning', or by 'about 75 percent (...) by reducing the sound-pressure levels of bells by 5 dB.' [47]

In the Netherlands, there have been lawsuits about church bell noise pollution experienced by nearby residents. [48] The complaints are usually, but not always, raised by new local residents (or tourists who spend the night in the neighbourhood [49] who are not used to the noise at night or during the day. [49] Local residents who had been used to it for longer usually retort that the newcomers 'should have known this before they moved here' and that the ringing bells 'belong to the local tradition', which sometimes goes back more than a hundred years. [50] [51]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a tightly controlled manner to produce precise variations in their successive striking sequences, known as "changes". This can be by method ringing in which the ringers commit to memory the rules for generating each change, or by call changes, where the ringers are instructed how to generate each change by instructions from a conductor. This creates a form of bell music which cannot be discerned as a conventional melody, but is a series of mathematical sequences.

Campanology is the scientific and musical study of bells. It encompasses the technology of bells – how they are founded, tuned and rung – as well as the history, methods, and traditions of bellringing as an art.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bell tower</span> Tower containing or designed to hold bells

A bell tower is a tower that contains one or more bells, or that is designed to hold bells even if it has none. Such a tower commonly serves as part of a Christian church, and will contain church bells, but there are also many secular bell towers, often part of a municipal building, an educational establishment, or a tower built specifically to house a carillon. Church bell towers often incorporate clocks, and secular towers usually do, as a public service.

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A handbell is a bell designed to be rung by hand. To ring a handbell, a ringer grasps the bell by its slightly flexible handle – traditionally made of leather, but often now made of plastic – and moves the arm to make the hinged clapper strike the inside of the bell. An individual handbell can be used simply as a signal to catch people's attention or summon them together, but handbells are also often heard in tuned sets.

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  1. Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Forward Movement. August 1, 1996. ISBN   9780880281720 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. There are two sorts of liturgical bells in the history of the Christian Church-church bells in spires or towers used to call the faithful to worship, and sanctuary bells used to call attention to the coming of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
  2. 1 2 Booth, Mark (February 11, 2014). The Sacred History: How Angels, Mystics and Higher Intelligence Made Our World. Simon and Schuster. p. 274. ISBN   9781451698589. Church bells would be rung to drive away demons.
  3. 1 2 Cohen, I. Bernard (1990). Benjamin Franklin's Science . Harvard University Press. p.  119. ISBN   9780674066595. The practice of ringing church bells to dissipate lightning storms and prevent their deleterious effects had a long tradition in Europe and had been a concomitant to the general belief in the diabolical agency manifested in storms. ... Typical inscriptions on church bells described their powr to "ward off lightning and malignant demons"; stated that "the sound of this bell vanquishes tempests, repels demons, and summons men," or exhorted it to "praise God, put to flight the coulds, affright the demons, and call the people"; or noted that "it is I who dissipate the thunders."
  4. 1 2 Lewis, James R. (2001). Satanism Today. ABC-CLIO. ISBN   9781576072929.
  5. Adato, Joseph; Judy, George. The Percussionist's Dictionary. Alfred Music. p. 11. ISBN   9781457493829.
  6. "What is the relationship between bells and the church? When and where did the tradition begin? Should bells ring in every church?". Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States. 2020. Retrieved August 8, 2020.
  7. Mary Cecil, 2nd Baroness Amherst of Hackney (1906). A Sketch of Egyptian History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Methuen. p. 399. Prayers 7 times a day are enjoined, and the most strict among the Copts recite one of more of the Psalms of David each time they pray. They always wash their hands and faces before devotions, and turn to the East.
  8. George Herbert Dryer (1897). History of the Christian Church. Curts & Jennings. …every church-bell in Christendom to be tolled three times a day, and all Christians to repeat Pater Nosters (The Lord's Prayer)
  9. Joan Huyser-Honig (2006). "Uncovering the Blessing of Fixed-Hour Prayer". Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Early Christians prayed the Lord's Prayer three times a day. Medieval church bells called people to common prayer.
  10. "Church bells". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. July 25, 2017. Retrieved August 8, 2020.
  11. 1 2 Gerhard Kittel; Gerhard Friedrich (1972). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 8. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 224. ISBN   9780802822505 . Retrieved October 26, 2012. The praying of the Lord's Prayer three times a day in Did., 8, 2 f. is connected with the Jewish practice --> 218, 3 ff.; II, 801, 16 ff.; the altering of other Jewish customs is demanded in the context.
  12. 1 2 Roger T. Beckwith (2005). Calendar, Chronology, and Worship: Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Brill Publishers. p. 193. ISBN   9004146032 . Retrieved October 26, 2012. The Church had now two hours of prayer, observed individually on weekdays and corporately on Sundays – yet the Old Testament spoke of three daily hours of prayer, and the Church itself had been saying the Lord's Prayer three times a day.
  13. Matthew: A Shorter Commentary. Continuum International Publishing Group. 2005. ISBN   9780567082497 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. Moreover, the central portion of the Eighteen Benedictions, just like the Lord's Prayer, falls into two distinct parts (in the first half the petitions are for the individuals, in the second half for the nation); and early Christian tradition instructs believers to say the Lord's Prayer three times a day (Did. 8.3) while standing (Apost. const. 7.24), which precisely parallels what the rabbis demanded for the Eighteen Benedictions.
  14. James F White (September 1, 2010). Introduction to Christian Worship 3rd Edition: Revised and Enlarged. Abingdon Press. ISBN   9781426722851 . Retrieved October 12, 2012. Late in the first century or early in the second, the Didache advised Christians to pray the Lord's prayer three times a day. Others sought disciplines in the Bible itself as ways to make the scriptural injunction to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17) practical. Psalm 55:17 suggested "evening and morning and at noon," and Daniel prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10).
  15. Catechism Of The Catholic Church. Continuum International Publishing Group. 1999. ISBN   0-860-12324-3 . Retrieved September 2, 2014. Late in the first century or early in the second, the Didache advised Christians to pray the Lord's prayer three times a day. Others sought disciplines in the Bible itself as ways to make the scriptural injunction to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17) practical. Psalm 55:17 suggested "evening and morning and at noon," and Daniel prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10).
  16. Beckwith, Roger T. (2005). Calendar, Chronology And Worship: Studies in Ancient Judaism And Early Christianity. BRILL. ISBN   978-90-04-14603-7. So three minor hours of prayer were developed, at the third, sixth and ninth hours, which, as Dugmore points out, were ordinary divisions of the day for worldly affairs, and the Lord's Prayer was transferred to those hours.
  17. John P. Anderson (2009). Joyce's Finnegans Wake: The Curse of Kabbalah, Volume 2. Universal Publishers. ISBN   9781599429014 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. The Angelus is a Christian devotion in memory of the Incarnation. Its name is derived from the opening words, Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ. It consists of three Biblical verses describing the mystery, recited as versicle and response, alternating with the salutation "Hail Mary!" and traditionally is recited in Catholic churches, convents and monasteries three times daily, 6:00 a.m., 12:00 noon and 6:00 p.m., accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus bell. Some High Church Anglican and Lutheran churches also use the devotion.
  18. The Anglican Service Book: A Traditional Language Adaptation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Together with the Psalter Or Psalms of David and Additional Devotions. Good Shepherd Press. September 1, 1991. ISBN   9780962995507 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. The Angelus: In many churches the bell is run morning, noon, and evening in memory of the Incarnation of God, and the faithful say the following prayers, except during Eastertide, when the Regina coeli is said.
  19. 1 2 The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Thought: Basilica-Chambers, Volume 2. Kessinger Publishing. 1952. p. 117. The main use of bells has always been to announce the time of public worship. It is also a common Roman Catholic practise to ring the church bell at the consecration in the mass, as in some Protestant localities at the Lord's Prayer after the sermon, that those who are absent may unite themselves in spirit with the congregation.
  20. The Valley's Legends & Legacies IV. Quill Driver Books. May 30, 2002. p. 223. ISBN   9781884995217 . Retrieved October 26, 2012. At the end of the sermon, both bells began to ring and continued ringing through the Lord's Prayer.
  21. Bannatyne, Lesley (August 31, 1998). Halloween. Pelican Publishing Company. p. 22. ISBN   9781455605538. Priests in tiny Spanish villages still ring their church bells to remind parishioners to honor the dead on All Hallows Eve.
  22. Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Forward Movement. August 1, 1996. ISBN   9780880281720 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. It is also traditional that the church bells ring during the processions of Candlemas (the Feast of the Purification) and Palm Sunday.
  23. Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Forward Movement. August 1, 1996. ISBN   9780880281720 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. It is traditional that no bells be rung from the last service on Maundy Thursday until the Great Vigil of Easter.
  24. Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Psychology Press. August 1, 1996. ISBN   9780880281720 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. But even for Muslims who pray infrequently, the adhan marks the passage of time through the day (in much the same way as church bells do in many Christian communities) and serves as a constant reminder that they are living in a Muslim community.
  25. Islamic Beliefs, Practices, and Cultures . Marshal Cavendish. September 1, 2010. p.  77. ISBN   9780761479260 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. Muslims living in predominantly Islamic lands, however, have the benefit of the call to prayer (adhan). In the same way that much of the Christian world traditionally used bells to summon the faithful to church services, so the early Muslim community developed its own method of informing the community that the time for prayer had arrived.
  26. Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Forward Movement. August 1, 1996. ISBN   9780880281720 . Retrieved August 16, 2012. It became customary to ring the church bells to call the faithful to worship and on other important occasions, such as the death of a parishioner.
  27. 1 2 Fanthorpe, Lionel; Fanthorpe, Patricia (October 1, 2002). The World's Most Mysterious Objects. Dundurn. p. 100. ISBN   9781770707580.
  28. Stahlschmidt, J. C. L. (1887). The Church Bells of Kent: Their Inscriptions, Founders, Uses and Traditions. London: Elliot Stock. p.  126.
  29. 1 2 H B Walters, The Church bells of England. published 1912 and republished 1977 by Oxford University Press. pp156-160
  30. Bob Triples, fully muffled bells on YouTube
  31. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 150
  32. Herrera, Matthew D. (2005). Sanctus Bells. Their History and Use in the Catholic Church. Adoremus Bulletin. Retrieved on November 11, 2014.
  33. "Ottoman-Hungarian Wars: Siege of Belgrade in 1456". HistoryNet. June 12, 2006. Retrieved August 10, 2022.
  34. Age Concern Shropshire (May 9, 2005). "Recollections of a Wartime Childhood". WW2 People's War. BBC.
  35. "Ringing of Church Bells (1943)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) . House of Lords. April 20, 1943. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  36. "Ban on Ringing of Church Bells during WW2".
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