Following an exhaustive investigation of hundreds of pages of evidence, the Associated Press has reported that the same Russian hackers found guilty in the Mueller investigation were also attempting to hack email accounts of senior Greek Orthodox Church leaders.
The hacking was by the Russian group called the “Fancy Bears” who were also implicated in the US presidential election hacking.
AP revealed the information about the attacks at a key time in relations between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Russian Patriarch Kiril, who is headed to Istanbul, Turkey next week to meet with Bartholomew to discuss the future of The Ukrainian Church.
The AP has alluded in its reports that the hacking is connected to the Ukrainian matter, which involves the possible granting of autocephaly by Bartholomew— something Kiril is vehemently opposed to.
Patriarch 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.
The hacking targets included top aides to Bartholomew, who is currently deciding whether to accept the Ukrainian bid to break away that country’s Orthodox Church from its theological and subservience to Moscow.
AP’s evidence comes from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied last year by Secureworks, a subsidiary of Dell Technologies.
AP studies 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, defence 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 high-profile religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies.
Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as next month.
“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, to the Associated Press.
“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”, Mr Makrides said.
The Russian Orthodox Church said it had no information about the hacking and declined comment.
Russian officials referred AP to previous denials by the Kremlin that it had anything to do with Fancy Bear, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flew to Istanbul in April 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”.
Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill is flying to Turkey later this week in a last-ditch bid to prevent it.
Hilarion Alfeyev, Kirill’s representative abroad, has warned 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,” Mr Alfeyev said.
Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use email, Ecumenical Patriarchate church officials told AP. But his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their email accounts.
Among them were several senior church metropolitans who are close confidants of Bartholomew.
They include Metropolitan Bartholomew (Samaras) of Smyrna; Metropolitan Emmanuel (Adamakis) of France, an influential hierarch in the church whom many believe will be the next Archbishop of America; and Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis), long-considered the second in power at the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Priests and prelates do not make obvious targets for cyberespionage, but the stakes for the Kremlin are high as the decision on autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church looms.
Granting the Ukrainian church full independence “would be that devastating to Russia”, said Daniel Payne, a researcher on the board of the JM Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas.
“Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people,” Mr Payne said.
“That’s where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are… it’s sacred to the people, and to Russian identity.”