A cybersecurity firm has concluded that Chinese hackers penetrated the Vatican’s computer networks in recent months during the lead-up to negotiations between the Catholic Church and Beijing.
The attack, reported Tuesday by the Massachusetts-based firm Recorded Future, comes as the Chinese government works to strengthen its control over religious groups in the country. It also comes before September negotiations regarding control over the appointment of bishops and the status of churches in China.
The infiltration targeted the Vatican and the Holy See’s Study Mission to China, a group of informal Vatican diplomats based in Hong Kong who have been negotiating the Church’s status in China, and began in early May.ADVERTISEMENT
One attack during the campaign was hidden in a fake letter from the Vatican to a Hong Kong chaplain in a particularly sophisticated attempt to replicate a letter from the official stationery of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra. Recorded Future determined the attack was in all likelihood tied to the upcoming negotiations over the 2018 agreement.
The details of the bargain reached two years ago are still largely unknown, but it is believed to have allowed Beijing to name bishop candidates to churches but allowed the pope the final say in the selections.
Recorded Future concluded that the hacking campaign was spearheaded by RedDelta, a state-sponsored Chinese group, and that the tactics mirrored those of other Chinese-approved hacking operations in recent years. However, new techniques and computer code used in the infiltrations made it difficult to discern the source of the hack with 100 percent certainty.
The relationship between the Holy See and Beijing has been particularly tense in the lead-up to the September talks, particularly over China’s security crackdown in Hong Kong and ongoing restrictions of religious life in China.
“The suspected intrusion into the Vatican would offer RedDelta insight into the negotiating position of the Holy See ahead of the deal’s September 2020 renewal. The targeting of the Hong Kong Study Mission and its Catholic Diocese could also provide a valuable intelligence source for both monitoring the diocese’s relations with the Vatican and its position on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement amidst widespread protests and the recent sweeping Hong Kong national security law,” Recorded Future wrote.
President Xi Jinping has put a premium on boosting government oversight throughout China on a number of religions, including ordering crosses to be torn down from over a thousand churches from 2014 to 2016 and, more recently, establishing highly criticized detention centers for ethnic Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim.
China and the Vatican have had a tense relationship in past decades, severing diplomatic ties in 1951, after which the Holy See officially recognized Taiwan. In 2014, Beijing broke with tradition and allowed the pope’s plane to fly through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea, leading Pope Francis to send a message offering blessings of peace to Xi. However, tensions have ratcheted back up as Chinese officials float accusations that the church is helping pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.