Religious freedom is ‘life or death’ in the trenches

Rachel Miner’s passion for religious freedom is benefiting thousands of people around the world

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Published: June 30, 2022, 9:00 p.m. MDT

By Jason F. Wright

As Rachel Miner sat at the head table in a large Washington, D.C., conference room on Thursday, she gripped a handheld microphone. At her sides sat a tech CEO, a journalist and a nonprofit leader. Miner — a recent college graduate in her early 20s — looked poised.

The panelists took turns discussing the intersection of faith and media. Appu Esthose Suresh, CEO of Pixstory, spoke to the role of social media companies. Kaila Philo, a reporter for Grid News, explained journalists’ perspectives. And Wendy Wilson, a senior program administrator at the Fund for Peace, brought a nonprofit view.

When it was Miner’s turn to speak, she looked out at the audience assembled for the International Religious Freedom Summit. In the last 10 years, she said, there have been three genocides announced around the world. All three, she explained, have been related to freedom of religion — a matter of life and death.

“Can we talk about religion in its ability to support human dignity?” she asked rhetorically.

Advocating for religious freedom to support human dignity has become Miner’s life’s work. As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, she founded Bellwether International, a nonprofit geared toward protecting global religious freedom. The organization operates in four main spheres: education, aid to refugees, gender equality and advocacy.

Miner’s nonprofit is uniquely poised to address an increasingly dire global issue. As social and political stress increases around the world, a unique partnership could serve as a stabilizing force: the freedoms of religion and the press. A new report from the Fund for Peace suggests that a thriving and responsible media landscape can help religion thrive, and that religious freedom is linked to societal stability.

For Miner, that means protecting all forms of belief or lack thereof: large organized religions and small ones, even humanism or atheism. And as infringements on religious liberty are linked to violence around the world, Miner sees her work as urgent. “It’s never been more needed,” she told the audience. “It’s life or death.”

The first time Rachel Miner’s work was featured in the media, she was a first grader celebrating a win in her elementary school’s art competition. Local officials placed Miner’s winning painting in the brand-new Colorado Springs fire station and her prize was a ride to school in a firetruck.

Though the rig took no emergency calls en route that morning, Miner was already ready and willing to serve. She’s been ready ever since, and is working to extinguish oppression.

While in London completing an internship with the Amar Foundation in 2019, Miner learned of the Yazidis — a religious minority in the Middle East displaced by the ISIS-perpetrated genocide. Further research led her to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief where she heard a report about the organization’s recent trip to Pakistan. “It was there that I learned more about Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB),” Miner says. “I began to learn everything I could about (it). … The people, their stories, their beliefs became very important to me.”

“Can we talk about religion in its ability to support human dignity?”

Miner scoured research briefs, government reports, news articles, international legal policy and history to better understand FoRB. She also attended U.K. Parliament committee meetings, hearings and debates. There, she met experts and policymakers in the field.

After four months of intense research and networking, she created Bellwether International, a nonprofit aimed at supporting and advocating for FoRB at the intersection of human rights, a culmination of her passion for lifting women, children, the abused and the oppressed.

Today, Bellwether International has representatives in Nigeria, Iraq, the United Kingdom and portions of the United States. Miner currently oversees 40 volunteers around the world and three full-time project managers. As an organization, Bellwether has implemented projects in four countries impacting approximately 30,000 individuals.

I first met Miner while she was briefly in Washington, D.C., between international destinations. She detailed the latest work of Bellwether.

Recently, Miner and several government leaders and Bellwether volunteers concluded a trip to Nigeria to bring humanitarian aid to international displaced people’s camps while pursuing additional interventions to help the over 2.9 million Nigerians who have been displaced by Boko Haram and ISWA.

Other global initiatives have shown promise. In 2021, in partnership with Stefanos Foundation and Books to Africa, Bellwether sent tens of thousands of books to Nigeria and later facilitated discussions aimed at easing tensions between the region’s herdsmen and farmers.

The 2022 IRF Summit, at which Miner was a panelist Thursday, was organized, in part, by Bellwether; the nonprofit will also help with the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, to be hosted in London in July.

I wondered how Miner launched and ran an international nonprofit while completing a bachelor’s degree in economics from Brigham Young University. She told me that her education and humanitarian work actually support one another. Her research was informed by her nonprofit work, and her work strengthened her research.

Miner sees her work as essential. “It’s never been more needed,” she told the audience. “It’s life or death.”

Miner’s honors thesis explored the causality of economic shocks on religious freedom violations in North Africa. She gathered data from four countries analyzing state department reports from the last 20 years. Her findings suggested that increases in gross domestic product per capita leads to subsequent decreases in freedom of religion violations.

In 2021, Miner was named a Truman Scholar, one of just 62 students selected from some 845 nominees from across the country. In addition to running Bellwether, she served as president of BYU’s Freedom of Religion or Belief Club, worked on public policy in the United States Senate as a legislative intern, and helped Julie Valentine and the Utah Legislature to draft bills that ensure protections for sexual assault survivors.

This fall, she begins a joint master’s degree in public administration from the London School of Economics and Columbia University in New York.

She owes at least part of her ambition and success to her parents, she says. A common phrase in her home has always been, “How can we help?”

“We were taught to think about the person sitting alone,” she says. “How can we help within our own sphere of influence? That’s really what my parents embody.”

Miner says she is both humbled and pleased with Bellwether’s work. “I think about our project manager in Nigeria. When we flew him to northern Nigeria for one of our projects, I realized how this work had completely changed the trajectory of his life. Here is this man from a small village in southern Nigeria who’d never been on a plane before. Now he’s running interventions, and inspiring others.” Miner senses this man’s work will eventually bless many across his country.

It can be hard to measure success in this kind of work. Miner points to the grateful letters she receives from those the organization has helped. But Miner does not believe Bellwether will be under her purview forever. “I’m trying to build something that won’t rely on me, but will outlive me,” she explains.

She muses about another potential job in her future. “When I was young, people would tell me I could be president of the United States. Who knows?”

She can’t say for sure where she’ll leave the rest of her legacy, whether it be the White House or elsewhere, but she knows her future holds continued advocacy. “Protecting people and protecting democracy isn’t easy,” she says. “It’s not comfortable. Sometimes we’ve got to embrace tension. We have to make things better. Because that’s what it takes to protect people, democracy, and freedom.”

Rachel Miner, Bellwether International founder and CEO, poses for a portrait at her family’s home in Lindon on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

Rachel Miner, Bellwether International founder and CEO, poses for a portrait at her family’s home in Lindon on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News