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

The issue is an extraordinarily sensitive one for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Reached by telephone, spokesman Nikos-Giorgos Papachristou said: “I don’t want to be a part of this story.”

Other church officials spoke to the AP about the hacking on condition of anonymity, saying they did not have authorization to speak to the media.

Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use e-mail, those church officials told AP.

However, his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their Gmail accounts.

Among them were several senior church officials called metropolitans, who are roughly equivalent to archbishops in the Catholic tradition.

Those include Bartholomew Samaras, a key confidante of the patriarch; Emmanuel Adamakis, an influential hierarch in the church; and Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, who heads a prestigious seminary on the Turkish island of Halki.

All are involved in the Tomos issue; none returned AP messages seeking comment.

Spy games have long been a part of the Russian Orthodox world.

The Soviet Union slaughtered tens of thousands of priests in the 1930s, but the communists later took what survived of the church and brought it under the sway of the KGB, with clerics conscripted to spy on congregants and emigres.

The nexus between Russia’s intelligence and religious establishments survived the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s reorganization into the FSB, Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said.

“Our church leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits,” Oreshkin said. “They provide [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s policy with an ideological foundation.”

That might make one target found by the AP seem curious: The Moscow Patriarch’s press secretary, Alexander Volkov.

However, Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun said he would not be surprised to see a Russian group spying on targets close to home, saying: “They’re probably checking him out just in case.”

Volkov did not return AP e-mails seeking comment.

Hovorun is unusually qualified to speak on the issue. In 2012 he — like Volkov — was an official within the Moscow Patriarchate.

However, he resigned after someone leaked e-mails showing that he secretly supported independence-leaning Ukrainian clergy.

Hovorun has since been targeted by the Russian hackers, according to the data from Secureworks, which uses the name Iron Twilight to refer to the group.

Hovorun said he believes that those who published his e-mails six years ago were not related to Fancy Bear, but he added that their modus operandi — stealing messages and then publishing them selectively — was the same.

“We’ve known about this tactic before the hacking of the Democrats,” Hovorun said, referring to the e-mail disclosures that rocked the US’ 2016 presidential campaign. “This is a familiar story for us.”

The Russian hackers’ religious dragnet also extended to the US and went beyond Orthodox Christians, taking in Muslims, Jews and Catholics whose activities might conceivably be of interest to the Russian government.

John Jillions, the chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, provided the AP with a June 19, 2015, phishing e-mail that Secureworks later confirmed was sent to him by Fancy Bear.

Fancy Bear also went after Ummah, an umbrella group for Ukrainian Muslims; the papal nuncio in Kiev; and an account associated with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a Byzantine rite church that accepts the authority of the Vatican, the Secureworks data show.

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