Mar 12, 2017

The rise of Benin's devil-hunting female pastor

Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname
Times Live
March 1, 2017 

In the Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname, the 25-year-old founder calls herself God, her business partner is a self-styled Pope and devotees pledge to end the reign of the Devil.

Its charismatic theology and clashes with other religions have caused it to be expelled from Benin's community of churches, and repeated scandals keep the sect in the public eye.

The latest episode occurred in January, when five followers suffocated to death after they were told to lock themselves inside sealed rooms with burning incense and pray for deliverance.

But it seems no amount of bad press can dent the Very Holy Church's soaring popularity, or eclipse the fire-and-brimstone appeal of its leader.

On special Sundays, thousands of followers climb up a hill in the Zou district in Baname, 130 kilometres (about 80 miles) north of the commercial capital Cotonou, to witness one of the country's most seductive pastors.

Vicentia Tadagbe Tchranvoukinni, who calls herself "Perfect" and "God's Holy Spirit", promises to "drive out demons".

The round-faced young woman founded the church in 2009. Since then, her influence has grown rapidly across the country.

"Just by walking up this hill, you are delivered and cured of many ailments," she proclaims on her website, which shows videos of her in a cassock and her signature cherry-red cloche hat addressing cheering crowds.

Her story is a take on immaculate conception: Tchranvoukinni claims she fell from the sky in northern Benin and was found by a Fulani shepherd in the bush.

West Africa is no stranger to larger-than-life pastors and mega-churches, and Benin itself is a tumultuous hub of mystical religions and animism.

But despite her cherubic appearance, Tchranvoukinni stands apart for her vitriolic condemnation of other beliefs -- notably voodoo, which is an official religion here.

Critics accuse her of fanning hatred between normally peaceful co-existing communities of different faiths.

On January 8, violent clashes broke out between her followers and residents in the southern town of Djime, who said they "insulted and offended" traditional leaders during an "evangelisation mission", one local official said.

Local media said two people were killed, several others were injured and a number of vehicles were torched.

There was no official death toll but Benin's government said it regretted the "loss of life".

According to daily newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune, the "warriors of the Church of Baname" came dressed in grey, armed with guns, machetes and clubs.

It wasn't the first time church followers had turned violent.

In 2014, clashes broke out at one of its rallies in Cotonou after youths from the Kpondehou area refused to leave their sports field. Several people were seriously injured.

Violence broke out again the following year in the central town of Save between church devotees and Roman Catholics.

Tchranvoukinni started the church after meeting a Catholic priest, Mathias Vigan, from the parish of Sainte-Odile-de-Baname in 2009.

"Perfect" was not yet 20 and had come to be exorcised. But it was the young woman who captivated the man of the cloth, whom she would later install as "Pope Christopher XVIII".

The religious odd couple built up their own congregation and to the chagrin of the Catholic church, Vigan started wearing all-white outfits similar to papal regalia -- ornate mitre and all.

Tchranvoukinni meanwhile called herself God.

By 2013, the Episcopal Conference of Benin -- the country's assembly of bishops -- expelled Tchranvoukinni and Vigan, and condemned the new church as a cult.

"Of all the dioceses of our country, and even beyond... our uninformed faithful with a thirst for the sensational and illusion of the new come in large numbers to Baname," the conference said.

In January 2014, the Benin government launched an investigation into the church after receiving what it said were "numerous complaints" from religious communities, political and traditional leaders.

Benin's former president, Thomas Boni Yayi -- himself a member of a pentecostal church -- summoned "Perfect" for talks but it had little effect and no legal action was taken against her.

The Church of Baname's spokesman, "cardinal" Cesaire Agossa, insists that Tchranvoukinni is a divine messenger.

"People do not understand that the Holy Spirit Creator of Heaven and Earth uses the body of Perfect as its temple," he told AFP.

Her mission? "To end the reign of Beelzebub, to succeed in exterminating sorcery and all evil spirits that prevent mankind from developing," he said.

Agossa, a former government advisor and the head of a media group, maintained the church had "never orchestrated violence" and its success had "aroused jealousy and hatred".

In the meantime, Tchranvoukinni's sphere of influence keeps growing.

She publicly endorsed President Patrice Talon, who was elected in March 2016. He has yet to say a word about the Church of Baname.

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