Vicentia Tadagbe Tchranvoukinni, founder of the Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname, calls herself ‘God’ and has been described as one of Benin Republic’s most seductive pastors.
The 25-year-old founder claims her story is that of an immaculate conception: Tchranvoukinni claims she fell from the sky in northern Benin and was found by a Fulani shepherd in the bush.
Tchranvoukinni, not only calls herself “Perfect” and “God’s Holy Spirit”, but also promises to “drive out demons” with her charismatic theology.
The round-faced young woman founded the church in 2009. Since then, her influence has grown rapidly across the country. Her business partner is a self-styled Pope, a former Catholic priest, Mathias Vigan, and their devotees pledge to end the reign of the Devil.
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 the fierce pastor’s experience.
On her website, which shows videos of her in a cassock and her signature cherry-red cloche hat addressing cheering crowds, she proclaims that one is delivered and cured of many ailments just by walking up the hill.
Despite the Very Holy Church’s soaring popularity, and it’s leader’s fire-and-brimstone appeal, the church is famous for being in the press for the wrong reasons.
The church’s 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.
A very recent episode occurred early this year when five followers suffocated to death after they were told to lock themselves inside sealed rooms with burning incense and pray for deliverance.
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 the papal regalia — ornate mitre and all.
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.
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.
Though well known for her vitriolic condemnation of other beliefs — notably voodoo, which is an official religion in Benin, Tchranvoukinni’s critics have accused her of fanning hatred between normally peaceful co-existing communities of different faiths.
On January 8, violent clashes were reported to have broken out between her followers and residents in the southern town of Djime, who said they “insulted and offended” traditional leaders during an “evangelization mission.”
Two people were reportedly killed, several others were injured and a number of vehicles were torched and Benin’s government said it regretted the “loss of life”. The “warriors of the Church of Baname” came dressed in grey, armed with guns, machetes and clubs.
This 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.
But the Church of Baname’s spokesman, ‘Cardinal’ Cesaire Agossa, insists that the church had “never orchestrated violence” and its success had “aroused jealousy and hatred”.
Agossa says Tchranvoukinni is a divine messenger, and people do not understand that the Holy Spirit Creator of Heaven and Earth uses the body of ‘Perfect’ as its temple.
Agossa, a former government advisor and the head of a media group, maintained that her mission is to end the reign of Beelzebub, to succeed in exterminating sorcery and all evil spirits that prevent mankind from developing.