Chinese faithful attend Pope Francis weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (AP…
Chinese faithful attend Pope Francis weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, May 22, 2019.

The New York Times Wednesday said the Vatican’s computer networks have been breached by Chinese hackers since May, in an apparent espionage effort before the start of sensitive talks between the Roman Catholic Church and Communist China. 

The Times says the attack, discovered by private U.S.-based cybersecurity and monitoring firm Recorded Future, appears to be the first time hackers have been publicly caught directly hacking into the Vatican and a Hong Kong-based group of de facto Vatican representatives who have negotiated with China over the Church’s status on the mainland.  

The newspaper says cybersecurity experts at Recorded Future have presumed the hackers are working for the Chinese government.   

The Vatican and China are expected to begin talks in September over renewal of a provisional agreement they reached in 2018 that gives the pope the final say over bishops selected by the Communist Party for the state-sanctioned Catholic Church.  The Times says the revelations are certain to anger the Vatican and further complicate its relationship with the Chinese government.   

The two sides cut off formal diplomatic ties in 1951.  The Vatican officially recognizes  Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing claims is a rogue breakaway territory that belongs under its control. If the Vatican and China restore diplomatic relations, Chinese officials are certain to demand that the Church cut off all ties with Taiwan.  

China officially recognizes Catholicism and four other religions, but Communist Party officials often suspect religious groups and worshipers pose a threat to national security and are working to undermine the party’s grip on power.   

Authorities have often used cyberattacks to gather information on groups such as Buddhist Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and members of the outlawed Falun Gong who operate outside of China.