AP: Russian Spies Tried Hacking Orthodox Clergy (Vid & Pics)

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. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

LONDON (AP) — The Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christian figures, The Associated Press has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine.

The targets included top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who often is described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders.

The Constantinople-based patriarch is currently mulling whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to tear that country’s church from its association with Russia, a potential split fueled by the armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The AP’s evidence comes from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied 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 high-profile religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies.

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.

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. “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,” Makrides said.

FILE – In this April 9, 2018 file photo, Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, right, speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Constantinople, 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.” (Mikhail Palinchak/Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP, File)

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.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flew to Constantinople 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,” Alfeyev said.

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.”

Other church officials spoke to the AP about the hacking on condition of anonymity, saying they did not have authorization to speak to the media.

Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use email, those church officials told AP. But his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their Gmail accounts.

Among them were several senior church officials called metropolitans, who are roughly equivalent to archbishops in the Catholic tradition. Those include Bartholomew Samaras, a key confidante of the patriarch; Emmanuel Adamakis, an influential hierarch in the church; and Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, who heads a prestigious seminary on the Turkish island of Halki. All are involved in the Tomos issue; none returned recent AP messages seeking comment.


Spy games have long been a part of the Russian Orthodox world.

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. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

The Soviet Union slaughtered tens of thousands of priests in the 1930s, but the Communists later took what survived of the church and brought it under the sway of Russia’s secret police, the KGB, with clerics conscripted to spy on congregants and emigres.

The nexus between Russia’s intelligence and religious establishments survived the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s reorganization into the FSB, according to Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

“Our church leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits,” Oreshkin said. “They provide Vladimir Putin’s policy with an ideological foundation.”

That might make one target found by the AP seem curious: The Moscow Patriarch’s press secretary, Alexander Volkov.

But Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a Russian group spying on targets close to home, saying, “they’re probably checking him out just in case.”

Volkov did not return AP emails seeking comment.

Hovorun is unusually qualified to speak on the issue. In 2012 he — like Volkov — was an official within the Moscow Patriarchate. But he resigned after someone leaked emails showing that he secretly supported independence-leaning Ukrainian clergy.

Hovorun has since been targeted by the Russian hackers, according to the data from Secureworks, which uses the name Iron Twilight to refer to the group.

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. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

Hovorun said he believes that those who published his emails six years ago weren’t related to Fancy Bear, but he noted that their modus operandi — stealing messages and then publishing them selectively — was the same.

“We’ve known about this tactic before the hacking of the Democrats,” Hovorun said, referring to the email disclosures that rocked America’s 2016 presidential campaign. “This is a familiar story for us.”

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 an account associated with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a Byzantine rite church that accepts the authority of the Vatican, the Secureworks data shows.

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.

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 Constantinople, Turkey. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

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 shows 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, 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 surveillance software on the recipients’ computers.

The email’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.

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)

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

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.”

By RAPHAEL SATTER , AP Cybersecurity Writer

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

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. (Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik Government Pool Photo via AP, File)

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)

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)


    1. And Eric Snowden …was Russian…and that is why he revealed to the world …. the most extensive hacking and communications intercepts survellience of the leaders of Europe and America…and most likely the Orthodox Church of Russia and Eastern Europe by non-other than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama… and the NSA of the United States!!

      Does his eminence….even know that the C.I.A and Pentagon ….have identified the Orthodox Church as a threat to the United States …in taking over the countries of Eastern Europe, due to the religious connection between the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia?

      Does his eminence know ….that John Podesta..and The DNC….were not hacked , but leaked by someone in The DNC! These are all bald faced lies…and the collision investigation or what the informed called the Media Circus of the Swamp …. demostrating how much they want to control our country …continues on …with Bizarre stories and accusations which have no purpose …but to continue a political war between Donald Trump and the degenerate corrupt government of the United states…who is fighting to retain their political control of the United States…which the American people asked Donald Trump to remove!

      Additionally, does his Eminence…know that the corrupt politicized FBI and Mr. Mueller….have accused individual Russians and two companies of Hacking….and that indictments against foreign countries …do not even require evidence to be presented….but can only be provided and reviewed at a trial ….that Mr. Mueller may have to do…because his worst nightmare has occured…lawyers for the companies , have arrived in Washington D.C. demanding Discovery information ….and Mr. Mueller has not complied with …and has been busy seeking Postponements!

      READ MY LIPS….no one has been found guilty of collusion or meddling…and we are witnessing the greatest political coup in American History by a ideological demented group of traitors in the FBI, Justice department, C.I.A. and State department …who have been appointed by the political hacks of Washington D.C. to do exactly what they are doing…protecting their criminal liabilities of the last 25 years! The Hillary Clinton scandal…is merely just one sympton of how corrupt and politicized these members of this government are….and now makes us a Totalitarian country to the world !

      Of course, this is another effort by the Neo Nazi government in the Ukraine, to suggest that the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine is a threat to their country with their association with Russia!

      By now …. the Russia Narrative…for most people is a joke! We can see right thru it ….since, the demented white supremacist fail to understand … that not everyone are inferior peasants who can be fooled by their lies!

      This is just another fake news narrative …of a media …who were very good …for another bunch of Fascist …. the Nazi party in 1945!

      Wake up…. do you believe the Russian Government would waste their time…hacking the e-mails of the Greek Orthodox Church! How convenient for this information …to come out now…when His Eminence is reviewing a request from the Ukraine to separate from the Moscow orthodox Church!

      like Nick said…you have been drinking the Kool aid of the C.I.A and State department .with a Kerosene chaser!….

  1. Pan-Slavism in action. Just a new level – cyberwar. Over the centuries nothing has changed in fact. “White-haired” has always dreamed and still dreams of the occupation of the Ecumenical Throne seeking to achieve this by any means. Sure that the KGB Putin and his ROC colleague Cyril (Gundyaev) (KGB = ROC) will do everything including the murder of His Most Divine All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

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