The events contrast sharply with the attack Saddam's regime is now facing from a U.S.-led coalition, reflecting his changed relationship with the United States since Washington helped Saddam covertly in his 1980-88 war with Iran.
Saddam's bond with Detroit started in 1979, when the Rev. Jacob Yasso of Chaldean Sacred Heart congratulated Saddam on his presidency. In return, Yasso said, his church received $250,000.
"He was very kind person, very generous, very cooperative with the West. Lately, what's happened, I don't know," Yasso, 70, said Wednesday. "Money and power changed the person."
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
Yasso said that at the time, Saddam made donations to Chaldean churches around the world.
"He's very kind to Christians," Yasso said.
Chaldeans are a Catholic group in predominantly Muslim Iraq. Among prominent Chaldeans is Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.
A year later, Yasso traveled with about two dozen people to Baghdad as a guest of the Iraqi government, and they were invited to Saddam's palace.
"We were received on the red carpet," Yasso said.
Yasso said he presented Saddam with the key to the city, courtesy of then-Mayor Coleman Young. Then, Yasso said, he got a surprise.
"He said, `I heard there was a debt on your church. How much is it?"' Yasso said.
Saddam donated another $200,000.
In the 1980s, Iraq and the United States were allied in their mistrust of Iran, which held hundreds of Americans hostage under the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Yasso called Saddam an American puppet.
"The job the United States trusted to him is done; now he's no good," he said.
There are tens of thousands of Chaldeans among the roughly 300,000 Americans of Middle Eastern descent in the Detroit area. About 1,200 families attend Sacred Heart, said Yasso, who came to the United States in 1964.
Some church members disagreed that Saddam was once kind.
"When he became president, I leave everything and run away," said Nadhim Franco, 66. "I came here. I was dishwasher. I came here, I was happy."