Thu, Sep 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Nothing sacred: Russian spies tried hacking Orthodox clergy

Russian hackers are trying to dig up as much confidential information they can about the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, as well as religious communities in the US, such as Muslims, Jews and Catholics

By Raphael Satter  /  AP, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

The Russian hackers indicted by the US special prosecutor in July have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Christian Orthodox figures, The Associated Press (AP) has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine.

The targets included top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who often is described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders.

The Istanbul-based patriarch is mulling whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to tear that country’s church from its association with Russia, a potential split fueled by the armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The AP’s evidence comes from a hit list of 4,700 e-mail addresses supplied last year by Secureworks, a subsidiary of Dell Technologies.

The AP has been mining the data for months, uncovering how a group of Russian hackers widely known as Fancy Bear tried to break into the e-mails of US Democrats, defense contractors, intelligence workers, international journalists and even US military wives.

In July, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election, a US grand jury identified 12 Russian intelligence agents as being behind the group’s hack-and-leak assault against former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The targeting of high-profile religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies.

Bartholomew claims the exclusive right to grant a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or full ecclesiastic independence, sought by the Ukrainians.

It would be a momentous step, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and severely eroding the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as leading player within the global Orthodox community.

“If something like this will take place on their doorstep, it would be a huge blow to the claims of Moscow’s transnational role,” said Vasilios Makrides, a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany. “It’s something I don’t think they will accept.”

The Kremlin is scrambling to help Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill retain his traditional role as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and “the more they know, the better it is for them,” Makrides said.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it had no information about the hacking and declined to comment.

Russian officials referred the AP to previous denials by the Kremlin that it has anything to do with Fancy Bear, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers have said the issue could be decided as soon as this month.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in April flew to Istanbul in an effort to convince the patriarch to agree to a split, which he has described as “a matter of our independence and our national security.”

Kirill last week flew to Turkey in a last-ditch bid to prevent it.

Hilarion Alfeyev, Kirill’s representative abroad, has said that granting the Tomos could lead to the biggest Christian schism since 1054, when Catholic and Orthodox believers parted ways.

“If such a thing happens, Orthodox unity will be buried,” Alfeyev said.

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