According to the Associated Press, Russian hackers have been stealing the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christian figures as well as other religions around the globe they deem a threat to Russia.
Among the targets was the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, often described as the first-among-equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders, as Russia and the Ukraine wrestle over the future of the church in the Ukraine.
In what would be a momentous step, the Ukrainian church wants to split from the church in Russia fuelled by the continuing conflict between the two countries.
The Patriarch has claimed the right to grant a ‘Tomos of Autocephaly’ or full ecclesiastical independence for the Ukrainian church. Such a move would have huge repercussions, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and severely undermining the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate. Which has always claimed to be the leading player within the global Orthodox world.
If something like this will take place on their doorstep, it would be a huge blow to the claims of Moscow’s transnational role. It’s something I don’t think they will accept.- Vasilios Makrides: Specialist in Orthodox Christianity, University of Erfurt, Germany
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko flew to Istanbul last April in an effort to gain agreement for the split while Moscow’s Patriarch will be in Turkey next week to defend their position. The schism has been described as the most profound since 1054, when Catholic and Orthodox parted ways.
Spying among the Russian church has a long and ignoble history. In the 1930s the Soviet Union slaughtered tens of thousands of priests but later the secret police changed its tack and used the church to spy on the populace.
In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed the relationship between the secret police and church survived and has been used politically by subsequent leaders but especially by Vladimir Putin.
It also transpired that the Russian hacking groups have targeted other religions whose activities may be of interest to the government. These included Ummah, an umbrella group for Ukrainian Muslims, the papal nuncio in Kiev, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and a Byzantine rite church.
Among those especially believed by Russia to be a threat have been Protestants, including prominent members of the Quakers.
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.- Cyril Hovorun: Orthodox Theologian, Yale University, USA
The latest hack came to light after an email, purporting to come from a spokesperson of the Orthodox church arrived in the mail boxes of dozens of leading figures. The attachment contained malware that installed surveillance software on the recipients’ computers.
So far, the real sender has not been identified despite a number of groups investigating. But church officials noted how the email had intimate knowledge of the workings and the language of the church.