Claims China hacked Vatican emerge in lead-up to summit

Chinese government spies hacked Vatican computer networks, a US firm that tracks state-backed cyber attacks has reported.

The apparent espionage effort also included hacking Catholic diocese of Hong Kong and the head of the Hong Kong Study Mission, who is seen as Pope Francis’ de facto representative to China.

Security firm Recorded Future, which detected the attacks, says they began in May.

The Vatican and Beijing were expected to engage in talks this year over the renewal of a landmark 2018 deal that stabilised relations between China and the Church.

Recorded Future says the Chinese Communist Party has used similar tools and methods previously identified with Chinese state-backed hacking groups.

One attack was hidden inside a document that appeared to be a legitimate letter from the Vatican to Monsignor Javier Corona Herrera, the chaplain who heads the study mission in Hong Kong.

It is unclear whether the letter was fabricated or if a real document the attackers had obtained and then linked to malware that gave them access to the computers of the Hong Kong church offices and the Vatican’s mail servers.

The electronic file looked as if it was on the official stationery of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra and the letter carried a message from Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Hackers and state authorities are said to have frequently used cyber attacks to try to gather information on groups of Buddhist Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and Falun Gong practitioners outside China.

The Party has been tightening its grip on religious groups, in an effort to “Sinicise” the religions practised in the country.

China officially recognises five religions, including Catholicism. However the authorities often suspect religious groups and worshippers of undermining the control of the Communist Party and the state, and of threatening the country’s national security.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin says China is a “staunch defender” of cybersecurity.

Ample evidence rather than conjecture is needed when investigating cyber events, he says.

Beijing denies engaging in any state-backed hacking attempts. On the contrary – Beijing is a victim of such threats, it says.

The claims that Beijing spies hacked the Vatican emerged after a rare meeting between Beijing and the Vatican’s foreign minister earlier this year in Germany. The meeting was the highest-level official encounter between China and the Vatican in decades.

Relations between the two have been improving and they have been expected to renew the provisional two-year deal on the operation of the Catholic Church in China this September.

However, there was no indication if the deal would be automatically extended because of the pandemic and for how long.


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