(RNS) – Sergei Chapnin, a senior fellow at Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, was at an academic conference in early June when he began hearing from people in Russia that his articles on Public Orthodoxy, a blog hosted by the center, were not available. He soon discovered that the Russian government had completely blocked the site within the country.
“It is clear that the criticism of our Orthodox Church and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s regime was really sharp,” said Chapnin, who worked for the Moscow Patriarchate from 2009 to 2015, including a stint as editor of the official magazine of the Russian Church. .
Public orthodoxy operates independently of any official body of the Orthodox Church, and contributions to the blog represent a wide range of orthodox Christian traditions. Since 2015, Public Orthodoxy has been publishing articles on the environment, women in the church, the relationship between faith and politics, and related topics.
“The idea is that we have a worldwide network of scholars in a multitude of disciplines to weigh in on current issues of concern in the Orthodox Church,” said George Demacopoulos, professor of theology at Fordham and co-director of the OCSC. He added that Public Orthodoxy is “written not for scholars,” but rather “for public consumption.” It is available in seven languages, including Russian.
“We have been writing for years about Putin’s threat to orthodoxy,” Demacopoulos added. “In some sense, I’m surprised it didn ‘t happen before.”
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But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Public Orthodoxy has focused almost exclusively on the Ukraine crisis.
In February, monthly traffic to the site doubled from 30,000 to 60,000 views, reaching a peak of 160,000 views in March. Readers scattered outside their accepted orthodox religious and scholarly communities, including staff members of the U.S. State Department. Staff began debating the theological foundation for Putin’s action in Ukraine, much of it delivered by Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill, along with a number of other issues facing the Orthodox Church in light of the conflict.
“The position of Patriarch Kirill in this war, in his sermons and public statements, revealed to many how deeply, in fact, the church is involved in Russian politics,” Chapnin said.
The public orthodoxy’s exploration of that dispute is likely what caused Russia to block the site, according to Chapnin. “For the state, even the criticism of the church and of Patriarch Kirill is not as sensitive as the criticism of the Kremlin or Putin’s regime,” he said.
According to a report produced by three Russian human rights organizations for the United Nations in May, Russia has over the past two years increased the power of Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal agency that oversees communications and mass media, to block media if the agency chooses. These restrictions only accelerated with the Russian invasion at the end of February.
Legal experts at Stanford University’s World Intermediary Liability Map, a project that monitors Internet regulation worldwide, said the legislation would allow the government to target information that the Russian state considers “fake news.”
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Although the sponsors of Public Orthodoxy are happy to have the growing readership at a crucial time for Orthodox Christianity, they seem to be particularly proud of the blockade by the Kremlin.
“I congratulate … all the editors and authors of the Public Orthodoxy blog on this ‘recognition’ by the Russian state,” Chapnin tweeted on June 2.
In an interview with Religion News Service, he added, “If they decide to ban a web project with a small audience, it means they are taking the criticism seriously and they have some sort of fear that this criticism will reveal something important.”