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

Also on the hit list: Yosyp Zisels, who directs Ukraine’s Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, and has frequently been quoted defending his country from charges of anti-Semitism.

Zisels said he had no knowledge of the attempted hacking.

Vatican officials did not return messages.

Protestants were targeted too, including three prominent Quakers operating in the Moscow area.

Hovorun said Protestants were viewed with particularly intense suspicion by the Kremlin.

“There is an opinion shared by many in the Russian establishment that all those religious groups — like Quakers, evangelicals — they are connected to the American establishment,” he said.

Secureworks’ data show hacking attempts on religious targets that took place in 2015 and 2016, but other material obtained by the AP suggests attempts to compromise the Ecumenical Patriarchate are ongoing.

On Oct. 16 last year, an e-mail purporting to come from Papachristou, who was just being appointed as spokesman, arrived in the inboxes of about a dozen Orthodox figures.

“Dear Hierarchs, Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ!” it began, explaining that Papachristou was stepping into his new role as director of communications. “It’s a very big joy for me to serve the Church on this position. Some suggestions on how to build up relations with the public and the press are provided in the file attached.”

The file was rigged to install surveillance software on the recipients’ computers.

The e-mail’s actual sender remains a mystery — independent analyses of the malicious message by Secureworks and its competitor CrowdStrike yielded nothing definitive.

Church officials told the AP they were disturbed by the hacker’s command of church jargon and their inside knowledge of Papachristou’s appointment.

“The one who made this is someone who knows us,” one official said.

Priests and prelates do not make obvious targets for cyberespionage, but the stakes for the Kremlin are high as the decision on Tomos looms.

Granting the Ukrainian church full independence “would be that devastating to Russia,” said Daniel Payne, a researcher on the board of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas.

“Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people,” Payne said.

“That’s where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are ... it’s sacred to the people and to Russian identity,” he added.

Francesca Ebel and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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