Detroit gave Saddam Hussein the key to its city in 1980 after Hussein made a generous donation to a local Chaldean church. How that came to be, of course, is a longer story.
In 1979, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq. He was already known as a powerful and violent figure, but that didn’t stop Reverend Jacob Yasso, who ran a local Chaldean church in Detroit, from publicly congratulating him on his new position.
In return for Yasso’s support, Saddam sent his church $250,000. Hussein was always kind to Christians, Yasso claimed, and he was especially generous to Chaldean churches around the world. Chaldeans, by the way, are considered Catholics. Many live in Iraq, but there are also tens of thousands living in Detroit.
About a year after receiving Hussein’s gift, Yasso traveled to Iraq with an envoy, and they were greeted as official guests of the Iraqi government. They arrived on a red carpet and were given a tour of Hussein’s palace - the royal treatment.
That’s when Yasso gave Hussein the key to the city of Detroit. Saddam was honored, and responded to Yasso with a question: how much is your church in debt? Hearing Yasso’s answer, Saddam donated another $200,000. With that, the bond between Saddam Hussein and Detroit would live on forever.
So, what exactly does a key to the city mean? At one time in ancient Europe, when walls protected most cities, offering the key was a sign of bonding and trust. A recipient could literally open the gates and enter the inner city. Today, a city’s key is purely symbolic - a gesture of goodwill, trust and friendship.
Of course, many years later as Saddam became an enemy of the United States, Yasso would refer to Saddam as an American puppet and a person who had changed with money and power. Nonetheless, Saddam’s key is a relic of trust and generosity that transcends international politics, confounding and controversial as it is.