Russian hackers target top Orthodox Christians

Russian hackers have spent years trying to steal private correspondence from some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christians, the Associated Press (AP) says.

The hackers, known as Fancy Bear, have targeted top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. Batholomew himself does not use email.

After months of research, the AP says it has evidence the hackers’ information came from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied last year by Dell subsidiary, Secureworks.

AP says targeting Bartholomew’s aides shows the high stakes Kiev and Moscow place on Ukraine’s religious future, as Bartholomew is currently deciding whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to remove the Ukranian church from its association with Russia.

He has the exclusive right to grant the Ukranian church “Tomos of Autocephaly” – full ecclesiastic independence.

The armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists is said to be behind Bartholomew’s deliberations.

If he were to grant Ukranians the ecclesiastic independence they want, it would split the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and erode the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Moscow Patriarchate has positioned itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.

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,” says Vasilios Makrides, who is a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany.

“It’s something I don’t think they will accept.”

Hilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarch’s representative abroad, says 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 says.

The Russian Orthodox Church says it has no information about the hacking and declined to comment.

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