LONDON, United Kingdom (AP) — Even men and women of the cloth aren’t safe from 21st-century cyberspies.
The Associated Press has found that the same hackers charged with intervening in the 2016 US presidential election also spent years trying to eavesdrop on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, often described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders.
The spying illustrates the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine, where many are trying to tear that country’s church away from its association with Russia. It would be a religious split fueled by harsh on-the-ground realities: Fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2014.
Evidence of the espionage comes from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied to the AP 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 emails of US Democrats, defense contractors, intelligence workers, international journalists and even American 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 Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The targeting of religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies.
Patriarch Bartholomew claims the exclusive right to grant the “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 a leading player within the global Orthodox community.
Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as next month.
“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 Russian Orthodox Church said it had no information about the hacking and declined 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.
The issue is an extraordinarily sensitive one for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Reached by phone, spokesman Nikos-Giorgos Papachristou said: “I don’t want to be a part of this story.”
Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use email, church officials told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not have authorization to talk to journalists. But his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their Gmail accounts.
The Russian hackers’ religious dragnet also extended to the United States 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 email 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 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, the Secureworks data shows.
Material recently obtained by the AP suggests attempts to compromise the Ecumenical Patriarchate are ongoing.
On Oct. 16, 2017, an email 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 malicious software on the recipients’ computers.
Priests and prelates don’t 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.”