Cookies at the State Department

East-West Travelblog: Terrorism, blasphemy -- and cookies

Travelblog is a series of occasional posts by RNS national correspondent Kimberly Winston, who is on the road with in Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tenn., Honolulu, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan with the 2015 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (RNS) Security is tough at the State Department.

Before we could get inside to meet with Dan Nadel, the acting director of the Office of International Religious Freedom, we had to pass through a metal detector, open our bags, get them scanned, show our passports, register our names and get a badge with the words "ESCORT REQUIRED" emblazoned in red.

State Department lobby (a sneaked pic!) with fellow and pal Kim Lawton

State Department lobby (a sneaked pic!) with fellow and pal Kim Lawton

We were then told no photos were allowed as we were escorted through a rabbit warren of institutionally bland halls before finally being herded -- and I use that word intentionally -- into a conference room with a big table.

Nadel gave us an overview of what the office does -- monitors freedom of religion and speech around the world and works with nine "countries of particular concern" to bring about more freedom there. But when asked about Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian atheist blogger imprisoned for blasphemy and sentenced to lashing, he had a boilerplate answer.

"In Saudi Arabia (a major U.S. ally) we have found the government engaged in ongoing and systematic violations of the freedom of religion," he said to the 17 international reporters on this fellowship with me. "We are frank with them. The Badawi case is one we have been following closely. So we continue to press that there is justice in this case."

I am sure that will be great comfort to Raif.

Being escorted through the halls of the State Department

Being escorted through the halls of the State Department

Then we split into smaller groups to have off-the-record briefings about different regions where Islam is the dominant religion. I picked the South Asian briefing and about six of us were taken to meet with Eileen O'Connor, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the region.

The session was off-the-record, so I can't tell you what we discussed. But I can tell you this lovely, very human thing that happened. After we gave up our cellphones and were personally walked to the bathroom -- I was starting to feel like a kindergartener -- our escort, Ajay Rao, the "Pakistan Desk Officer," said, "Would anyone like some cookies?"

Cookies??? Oh, heck yeah!

Then, as O'Connor began her briefing -- on terrorism, on blasphemy, on assassinations, on the Taliban -- Rao placed two heaping plates of cookies on the table. There were chocolate chip, shortbread, oatmeal, peanut butter (is there a secret Pillsbury bakery deep in the bowels of the State Department?). And all of these suited, accomplished, well-educated and well-heeled folks with a bit of an adversarial relationship took a napkin -- emblazoned with the U.S. seal -- and nibbled on cookies together.

Cookies at the State Department

Cookies at the State Department

I didn't mind being treated like a kindergartner. It was a reminder that under all these huge, unsolvable issues we are all human, all doing the best we can. We might be skeptical of each others' motives, unsure if we're being told the "truth" -- whatever that means to governments and to each of us -- but we can all share a sweet together.

From there we departed for Masjid Muhammad, the first mosque in the U.S. to be built by the descendants of slaves. More about that later.

ANOTHER VIEW: Kim Lawton's fellowship blog at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

TRAVEL ALONG: Day 1-- A wake-up call in Washington