VATICAN CITY (AP) – The Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong have been hacked by agents linked to the Chinese government before negotiations on the resumption of an agreement on relations between China and the Vatican, a monitoring group denounced.

The alleged hack was carried out by a group called RedDelta and began in May with a view to negotiations in September over the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops, says a report released Tuesday by Recorded Future, a US-based group that monitors cyber attacks. of state entities. The hack was initially reported by the New York Times.

The Vatican declined to comment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied being involved, calling the report « unfounded speculation. »

Recorded Future said that the Hong Kong Mission for Relations with China – an important binding body between the Holy See and the Beijing government – and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions were also hacked.

« The alleged intrusion into the Vatican data would give RedDelta an idea of ​​the Holy See’s negotiating position before the agreement was renewed, » the document says, adding that China could also obtain « valuable intelligence » on the positions of Hong Kong Catholic entities towards protests there.

The attacks continued until at least July 21. They included an apparent phishing attempt with a document bearing the official seal of the Vatican Secretariat of State addressed to the director of the Hong Kong Mission for Relations with China.

The 12 million Catholics in China are divided between the faithful to the official Catholic Patriotic Association of China, independent of the pope’s mandate, and the faithful to the Vatican, who operate in hiding. Pastors and priests of the underground church are frequently detained or harassed by the government.

The Vatican and the Chinese government reached an agreement in 2018 on appointment of bishops to unite the flock, normalize the status of seven bishops who were not recognized by Rome, and reduce decades of cold relations between China and the Vatican.