KYIV, Ukraine – Russian hackers infiltrated the email inboxes of Orthodox, Catholic, and other religious leaders connected to Ukraine amid conflict between Kyiv and Moscow over Ukraine’s political and religious independence.
Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, was among the 4,700 global targets of the “Fancy Bear” cyber espionage group, the same Russian hackers who were indicted in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, according to the Associated Press.
Gugerotti and unnamed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic clergy were hacked by this group, along with other foreign diplomats, journalists, intelligence personnel, and Hillary Clinton.
Kyiv is the site of the 988 baptism of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, which resulted in the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, a state whose heritage Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all claim.
The Christianization of Kievan Rus’ forms the roots of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, and several Orthodox Churches in Ukraine.
In addition to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church, there are two other Orthodox Churches which have claimed autocephaly, but are not recognized by other Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
These two latter churches have asked the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, for recognition as autocephalous Churches. The request has been supported by the Ukrainian parliament and its president.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is regarded as the primus inter pares or “first among equals” among the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Bartholomew’s staff were particularly targeted by the cyber-espionage group aligned with the Russian government. Several Greek Othodox metropolitans were hacked, including Bartholomew Samaras, Emmanuel Adamakis, and Elpidophoros Lambriniadis.
In a highly-anticipated meeting, Bartholomew hosted Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Istanbul Aug. 31. There was no statement released as a result of the meeting, leaving many Ukrainians wondering whether their request for an independent national Church will be accepted by Eastern Orthodox leaders.
The Russian Orthodox Church has strongly opposed the proposal of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Moscow’s control. One representative for Kirill told AP that Ukrainian Orthodox independence would lead to the biggest Christian schism since 1054.
Granting autocephaly to the UOC-KP and UAO would end “Russia’s four-century-long monopoly on the ancient Kyivan heritage and modern Ukrainian Orthodox spirituality,” Myroslav Marynovych, a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and vice-rector for university mission at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, told Catholic News Agency.
Marynovych added that he understands that “this sine qua non solution might create new problems in the inter-Church relations in Ukraine and in the world.”
However, he maintains that the Russian Orthodox Church’s willingness to cooperate with the Russian government’s “practice of evil” necessitates a split. The hacking is just one example.
The AP reported that “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,” a connection which has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union.
The hacking of Orthodox and Catholic clergy took place from 2015 to 2016, but the AP reported that other evidence gives reason to believe that Russian attempts to compromise Bartholomew are ongoing.