The Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong have reportedly been the target of Chinese state-backed hackers who negotiated a landmark renewal in 2018, which helped diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China, according to a monitoring group.
The alleged attacks by a group called Reddelta began in May, with negotiations in September to renew a provisional agreement on bishop appointments that track state-backed cyber attacks, as reported by US-based Recorded Future. The attacks were first reported by the New York Times.
The Vatican had no immediate comment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any involvement, calling the report “baseless speculation”.
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Recorded Future said the Hong Kong Study Mission to China – an important link between the Vatican and China – and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission were also targeted.
“The suspected incursion into the Vatican will give Reddelta insight into the state of Holly’s deal ahead of the September 2020 renewal of the deal,” the report said. It may also provide “valuable intelligence” about the position of Hong Kong-based Catholic institutions on the pro-democracy movement.
The attacks continued until at least 21 July. He included an apparent phishing effort with a document on the Vatican Secretariat of State letterheads directed to the head of China’s Hong Kong Study Mission.
An estimated 12 million Catholics from China are divided between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is out of the pope’s authority, and an underground church loyal to the pope. Underground priests and parishioners are often detained and harassed.
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A landmark 2018 deal between the Holy See and China over bishop nomination was aimed at uniting the flock, regularizing the status of seven bishops, who were not recognized by Rome, and the decades of oscillations between China and the Veilan Was for decades.
But some of China’s underground loyalists have deep reservations about the deal, selling it to the communist government and betraying their longstanding loyalty to the pope.
China denies engaging in a state-sponsored program to steal commercial secrets or sensitive government information on the Internet, and says it is among the biggest victims of hacking attacks. The US disputes and says it has detected a cyber intrusion for the Chinese military. Earlier this month, Washington prompted two Chinese nationals to launch hacking attacks against companies in the US and other countries.
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The Department of Justice also said that hackers working with the Chinese government work with targeted companies developing vaccines for coronoviruses. China says Washington has not provided any information to support the allegations.