Unholy hackers: Orthodox clergy targeted by Russian spies

This image shows a portion of a June 2015 phishing email sent to John Jillions, the chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America. Although designed to look like it came from Google, an examination of the email using data supplied by the cybersecurity firm Secureworks shows that it was sent by the group of hackers indicted in July 2018 by the United States. Parts have been redacted to protect sensitive information. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this April 9, 2018 file photo, Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, right, speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Istanbul, Turkey. Poroshenko visited 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 planning to fly to Turkey in late August 2018 in a last-ditch bid to prevent it. (Mikhail Palinchak/Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - In this early Sunday, April 16, 2017 file photo, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, leads the Easter Resurrection Service at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey. The Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. special prosecutor in July 2018 have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Christian Orthodox figures, including top aides to Bartholomew, The Associated Press has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, May 25, 2010 file photo, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, shields his eyes from the sun as he stands on a roof overlooking the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. 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 dealing a body blow to the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as leading player within the global Orthodox community. (Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik Government Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 4, 2004 file photo, a full moon rises above the golden domes of the Orthodox Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as September 2018. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, April 8, 2018 file photo, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest blesses worshippers as they collect traditional cakes and painted eggs for an Easter celebration at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves, in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as September 2018. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)
This image shows a portion of an October 2017 email made to look like it was written by Ecumenical Orthodox Church spokesman Nikos-Giorgos Papachristou. The email was booby trapped, suggesting that attempts to digitally compromise the Ecumenical Patriarchate are ongoing. Parts have been redacted to protect sensitive information. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Saturday, July 28, 2018 file photo, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, leads a religious service as Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa Theodoros II, second right, attend a ceremony marking the 1,030th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by Prince Vladimir, the leader of Kievan Rus. The loose federation of Slavic tribes preceded the Russian state. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 file photo, a woman walks toward the Russian Orthodox Church headquarters in the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow, Russia. 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,” says Vasilios Makrides, a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

LONDON — 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. election, a U.S. 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."

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Online:

Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphaelsatter.com

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