Defenders of Religious Freedom: Bishop Rolando Álvarez and Congressman Chris Smith

Catholic faithful in China and around the world take heart from the example set by these two courageous men

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua (l) and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua (l) and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. (photo: Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua / CC BY-SA 4.0 and U.S. Congress / Public Domain)

We recently celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, who promised to St. Bernadette, “I do not promise you happiness in this world but in the next.”

My meditation on her promise brought many people to mind, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, Jimmy Lai and many other dissidents and persecuted faithful in China and around the world. Newly added to their number was Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced Friday by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega regime to 26 years in prison.

Bishop Álvarez Stays With His Sheep

My soul was struck when I read this detail about Bishop Álvarez’s persecution:

Ortega said that Álvarez was taken to the airport and before reaching the plane, ‘he starts saying that he’s not leaving, that he would first have to talk to the bishops, meet with the bishops, and he demands a meeting with the bishops. Which is absurd.’

So Bishop Álvarez decided to stay with his sheep, fulfilling Christ’s words in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

John Feeley, former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, paid tribute to Álvarez:

Bishop Álvarez’s decision to stay behind recalls the courageous legacy of Salvadoran Archbishop [Oscar] Romero — a man of titanic faith who chooses to stay with his flock despite the very real threat of death. The man who most wanted ‘this meddlesome priest’ on that plane was Daniel Ortega, but God kept him in Nicaragua.

In a statement issued Friday following the deportation of 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners, Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the House Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations Subcommittee, said: “We must continue to work to combat the brutal Ortega regime and free the remaining prisoners — including courageous Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refuses to abandon his flock.” 

Cardinal Zen once told me, “Sometimes unnecessary to strive to be a martyr. If God grants me martyrdom, it’s a great blessing, and he will strengthen me.” 

Let there be no doubt. If someday Cardinal Zen goes to jail, he will continue his prison ministry as he did in the past 10 years, just as Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận has done, as Jimmy Lai is doing and as Bishop Álvarez will be doing.

They had a chance to flee. But they chose to stay.


Tribute to Rep. Chris Smith

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey is one of the most loyal friends the courageous Chinese have in Congress. He shared this about Bishop James Su Zhimin in a 2020 hearing:

I met Bishop Su in Beijing in 1994.
At the time, he had already spent several years in prison for his faith, yet he had extraordinary gentleness, strength, courage and a peace that surpassed all understanding.
Bishop Su told my delegation after celebrating Mass in a tiny apartment that he prayed for his persecutors and he especially prayed for the cruel and misguided leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Bishop Su was beaten, starved and tortured for his faith. Yet he prayed not just for persecuted believers but for God’s mercy on those who hate, torture and kill. His faith in Jesus absolutely amazed me.
Cynically, Chinese authorities arrested him before my delegation even left the country, and held him for nine days. He was arrested again in 1997, and has not been seen since save for once in 2003 when he surfaced in a hospital in Baoding.
Again, Bishop Su has suffered approximately 40 years in prison — and the Chinese Communist Party refuses to disclose where he is and what they have done to him. …
Now, though not confirmed, there is new concern that this good and holy man may have died or been killed, as Chinese authorities have asked the Vatican to appoint a new bishop to the Baoding diocese, Coadjutor Bishop Francis An Shuxin from the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, apparently under the terms of the 2018 Temporary Agreement.
Before replacing him, the Vatican ought to demand an answer to the question ‘Where is Bishop Su?’

In 2022, the government-sanctioned Bishop Francis An Shuxin, who was once a persecuted underground bishop, issued a letter to urge the remaining underground clergy to follow his example of registering with the government. He threatened them with the suspension of their faculties, referencing the Pastoral Guidelines of the Holy See Concerning the Civil Registration of Clergy in China.

In addition to the problematic set of guidelines itself, more burning questions remain: What has turned the hearts of an increasing number of underground clergy to join the government Church? Who pushed Bishop An, if not his own misunderstanding, to take such action? To what extent are Rome and Beijing taking advantage of each other to achieve their goals?

Left unaddressed, these factors — most likely hijacked by Beijing — keep tearing apart the Diocese of Baoding, the historical stronghold of China’s most loyal faithful.

Smith Defends Chinese Catholics

I’ll never forget Rep. Smith’s two most dramatic defenses of my people. 

In a 2006 congressional hearing regarding the Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who was sentenced to 10 years because Yahoo “was legally obliged to comply with Chinese law enforcement,” the company said:

When Yahoo China in Beijing was required to provide information about a user, whom we later learned was Shi Tao, we had no information about the identity of the user or the nature of the investigation.

Chris Smith grilled the Yahoo representative on “The Tank Man,” a 2006 episode of PBS’ Frontline:

If the secret police a half century ago asked where Anne Frank was hiding, would the correct answer be to hand over the information in order to comply with the local laws?

In 2012, during a live congressional hearing, blind, barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng, persecuted for his anti-abortion efforts in China, made a dramatic telephone appeal to come to the United States.

“I want to come to the U.S. to rest,” he said in a trembling voice from a police-surrounded hospital room. “I have not had a rest in 10 years.”

His remarks were broadcast via an iPhone speaker held up to a microphone at the hearing.

“I’m concerned most right now with the safety of my mother and brothers. I really want to know what’s going on with them.”

Smith responded to Chen:

Your case is the test of the Chinese commitment to protect you, though we are very dubious about their assurances, but it’s also the test of the States as for whether human rights really matter. … Secretary of State Clinton (should) go to meet with you in your hospital room … and you with your supporters need to be put on the plane to the States. … Chen, we are all praying for you and unceasing in our efforts to secure your freedom.

“I do not promise you happiness in this world,” said Our Lady of Lourdes, “but in the next.”

Good shepherds, pray for us.


The author, born in China but now based in the United States, works with an apostolate that promotes dialogue and solidarity between Catholics, Protestants and nonbelievers in China to defend life and human dignity. 

Father Alberto Reyes has emerged as a critical voice against the extreme poverty and repressive actions of Cuba's police state.

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The Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba “manages the different aspects of religious life” in the country, as noted in the 2023 Religious Freedom Report of Aid to the Church in Need.