Russia is apparently waging a cloak-and-dagger campaign against rival Orthodox churches

Russian President Vladimir Putin converses with Russian Orthodox leaders
(Image credit: Screenshot/YouTube/AP)

The Russian Orthodox Church is facing a huge loss. Ukraine wants to cleave its Orthodox church from Russia — and the de facto head of the Eastern Orthodox church might grant the request — and the same team of Russian hackers that hit the Democrats in 2016 is apparently aiding the Russian church by trying to steal the private electronic correspondence of some of the Eastern Orthodox church's most senior officials, The Associated Press reports.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul, considered first among equals of Eastern Orthodox leaders, might grant Ukraine's church a "Tomos of Autocephaly" — essentially an ecclesial declaration of independence from Russia — as early as next month. The Russian hackers known as Fancy Bear, tied to Russian military intelligence, have been trying to steal correspondence from Patriarch Bartholomew's senior aides, including prelates involved in the Tomos decision, AP says.

If the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, loses authority over the Ukrainian church, it would be a big blow to Moscow, too, so it makes sense that the Kremlin would be involved, and "the more they know, the better it is for them," explains Vasilios Makrides, an expert on Orthodox Christianity. Kirill's deputy Hilarion Alfeyev has compared granting the Ukrainian church independence to the 1054 schism that spilt the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Patriarch Kirill is flying to Turkey this week to try to sway Bartholomew, 78, from allowing Ukraine's request; Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Istanbul in April to encourage the split.

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Russian Orthodox "leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits," Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin tells AP. "They provide Vladimir Putin's policy with an ideological foundation." And the stakes are really high here, adds Baylor University church-state researcher Daniel Payne. "Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people," he told AP. "That's where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are ... it's sacred to the people, and to Russian identity."

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