Beijing hackers target Vatican, ramp up attack on all faiths

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By John J. Metzler

The story comes right out of a Dan Brown mystery thriller in which Vatican secrets are targeted by State sponsored computer hackers.  Yet according to cyber security sources, the intrusion into sensitive Vatican diplomatic traffic is not fiction, but a cold hard fact of modern espionage.

The Recorded Future Network, a respected cyber security firm based near Boston, has identified and profiled a “cyber espionage campaign attributed to a suspected Chinese state-sponsored threat activity group, which we are tracking a RedDelta.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen. / Bohumil Petrik / Catholic News Agency

The group states, “From early May 2020, The Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong were among several Catholic Church-related organizations that were targeted by RedDelta, a Chinese-state sponsored threat activity group tracked by Insikt Group.”  They add that a series of suspected network intrusions also focused on the Hong Kong Study Mission to China.

But why target the Vatican?  The Holy See is but a European micro state inside Rome, hardly a high tech center, a pharmaceutical research hub, nor a nexus of global military operations.  So, what’s hidden behind the ancient walls that so interests Beijing’s Marxist mandarins?

Related: Hong Kong bishop: The Catholic church in China is being ‘murdered’, March 25, 2070

In September, the Vatican and China resume talks over Beijing’s control and relationship with the Catholic Church in China.  In September 2018 Pope Francis made a provisional two-year deal with China allowing the communist regime to have additional control and oversight over the country’s long persecuted church.  Recorded Future group asserts, “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.”

In other words, Beijing is allegedly poaching diplomatic intel related to the Vatican’s negotiating positions.  Surprise, surprise!

Traditionally, the People’s Republic of China has maintained a strained relationship with the Vatican.  Though the Catholic Church in China numbers only twelve million members, the congregations are effectively split between an “underground church” which is loyal to the Vatican versus the Patriotic Church which is run through the United Front department of the Communist Party of China (CPC).  At issue is Beijing’s insistence that it appoint Bishops to the Church which of course remains in direct contravention of Church policy.

Moreover, the Holy See still maintains diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan and not the Beijing communists.  This particularly irks the People’s Republic as it underscores the issue of political legitimacy.

The September 2018 provisional agreement now up for renewal, sees China having more control of the “underground church” while the Vatican would gain additional influence over Beijing’s appointment of Bishops for the state-sanctioned “Patriotic Church.”  Additionally, the Holy See would recognize the communist People’s Republic over democratic Taiwan.

Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of China’s President Xi Jinping, the CCP has tightened political and spiritual control over Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Moslems, and Chinese Christians, especially the Catholics.  Though the so-called Patriotic Church has been a regime-run conduit since the 1950’s, Beijing wishes to get a political benediction of both legitimacy and action from the Vatican as to appoint its chosen Bishops without the ire of Rome.

Chairman Xi’s security apparatus has stepped up attacks on religion over the past year.

According to Bitter Winter, a renowned religious rights website, Beijing has dramatically expanded destroying and desecrating Protestant and Catholic Churches throughout the Mainland.

During this year between January and May in Anhui Province, the regime has systematically pulled down 250 crosses on Protestant churches.  These churches ironically even belong to the regime sanctioned Patriotic Movement. It’s all about the CCP’s control and Sinofication of religious life and symbols.

Sensitive negotiations are continuing between Beijing and the Holy See to finally come to an accord.  Given the global Coronavirus, since there’s obviously less formal and informal personal diplomacy, there are additional online contacts, thus exposing Vatican statecraft to cyber stalking.

Recently, Pope Francis during prepared remarks at the Vatican, at the last minute deleted specific mentions over the situation in Hong Kong. This was tragically telling.

Hong Kong’s retired Cardinal Joseph Zen has virulently criticized the Vatican for its political kowtowing to the CCP on the decades-long dispute on the authority to appoint Bishops.

Cardinal Zen’s feelings reflect a deep disquiet in Catholic circles, especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan that the Vatican will “do a deal” with Beijing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking recently at the Nixon Library in California, underscored the political stakes in the larger battle, “not between the United States and China but between authoritarianism and freedom.  That’s the fight the world needs to be engaged in.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]