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A group called RedDelta began attacks in May with their eyes on the September deal negotiations, according to a report. The US-based cybersecurity company, Recorded Future, release the report which said the attacks were backed by China.
The Chinese foreign ministry has denied any involvement and called the report “groundless speculation”.
Recorded Future said the Hong Kong Mission to China, which is a key link between the Vatican and China, and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions were also targeted by the hackers.
Negotiations are planned to take place between the Vatican and China to renew a landmark 2018 deal in September 2020.
The report said: “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.’
It added how the attack could provide “valuable intelligence” about Hong Kong-based Catholic entities’ position on the pro-democracy movement.
The report said the cyber attacks continued to at least July 21.
The intrusions allegedly included a phishing attempt with a document on Vatican Secretariat of State letterhead directed to the head of the Hong Kong Study Mission to China.
China’s approximate 12 million Catholics are split between two groups.
The first belong to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association outside the pope’s authority.
The second group is an underground church loyal to the pope.
Underground priests and parishioners are often detained and harassed.
The landmark 2018 deal between the Holy See and China on bishop nominations was planned to unite the two sides.
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It regularised the status of seven bishops who were not recognised by Rome.
The deal also dissolved decades of estrangement between China and the Vatican.
But some of China’s underground faith communities have strong reservations towards the deal.
They believe it is a sell-out to the Communist government and a betrayal of their long loyalty to the pope.
China has routinely denied engaging in any state-backed program to steal commercial secrets or sensitive government information through cyber attacks.
The country said it is amongst the biggest victims of hacking intrusions but the US has disputed China’s claims.
The US said Chinese military has been traced to cyber intrusions.
Earlier in July, Washington indicted two Chinese citizens for reportedly launching cyber attacks against companies in the US and other countries.
The Justice Department said hackers working with the Chinese government targeted organisations developing COVID-19 vaccines.
China said Washington has shown no information to back up their claims.
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