- Former president of the American Friends Service Committee
- Former president & CEO of the Hunger Project
- Traveled with a delegation to Iran at the invitation of President Ahmadinejad in 2007
In early 2007, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) General Secretary Mary Ellen McNish made a week-long delegation trip to Iran (at the invitation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) with several U.S. religious leaders, including representatives of Pax Christi USA and Sojourners. Led by AFSC and the Mennonite Central Committee, this was the first American religious delegation to meet with an Iranian president since that country’s revolution in 1979. Reflecting on the trip after returning to the U.S., Ms. McNish said the following in an interview:
“When we met with the ayatollahs, we learned a lot about Islam, and basically they told us that … the Koran teaches peace just like the Bible does. … I was amazed at the vibrancy of the women I met. I really thought they were going to be a repressed group, and they weren’t. … [T]he dress codes over the past five years have become a little bit more relaxed. … and 65 percent … of university students are women. That’s remarkable. … [Iranians] feel that they have been treated with a double standard [by the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program] … they felt that … very good faith efforts had been made on their part already and they were looking for some respect, actually, from the international community before they would make any moves. But they were willing to talk, absolutely.
“…One of the things we came away most encouraged about was, President Ahmadinejad said to us: ‘The Israeli Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political means, not military means.’ Our hearts leapt with joy. On the matter of the Holocaust, again he presented his view … that he’s using the issue of the Holocaust as an opening to ask why is this being used to hurt the Palestinian people?
“… [T]he vibrancy of the country …there was a hospitality that I almost can’t describe. They were so kind. And smiles, everybody smiled and was helpful. … One of the things I said to one of the groups I met with was that I have read history … and I knew the things that had hurt them. And one of the things that was very surprising was how deep the pain is that has, from their point of view, been caused by the American government. … How many Americans know that the CIA overthrew their elected government in 1953? … They are such a proud people. …It’s a 6,000-year-old society. The poetry, their literature. It’s really quite remarkable. … Iran wants to talk if the U.S. will show some good will. … So just sit down and talk. That’s our [AFSC’s] message. … Over and over again in Iran we were told that nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction of any kind, was against Islam. … We heard it from government officials. We heard it from ayatollahs. … They love the American people. They have no problem with us at all. It’s our government policies they don’t like.”
McNish served as the Hunger Project President and CEO from 2004 until September 1, 2014.