ADJARRA, Benin (Reuters) – Five people died from asphyxiation in Benin this weekend and several more were hospitalised after a religious cult told followers to seal themselves into prayer rooms and burn incense and charcoal, residents and a survivor told Reuters.
The group, whose name in French translates as the “Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname”, has thousands of adherents across the country and has stirred tensions by vehemently opposing the local voodoo culture.
Its young woman leader, Vicentia Chanvoukini, known by her followers as “Lady Perfect”, has proclaimed herself a god.
“With the help of old cloths, we sealed off all of the exits to the prayer room before using incandescent charcoal and incense to prepare for the descent of the Holy Spirit,” said survivor Yves Aboua at the Porto Novo hospital where he was admitted with respiratory problems on Sunday.
Church members were told to stay in their prayer rooms until Sunday so as “not to be held accountable” when the world ended, he said. Several other people remain in hospital in critical condition, according to residents and hospital workers.
In a shady courtyard in the town of Adjarra, five kilometres (3 miles) northeast of the capital, a woman fanned a survivor sitting on a straw mat to resuscitate him while awaiting medical attention. The body of his brother, who died during the prayer ritual, lay beside him.
Local mayor Michel Honga confirmed that the victims were members of prayer groups but declined further comment. Police officials declined comment and Reuters was unable to contact anyone representing the Baname church.
About 40 percent of the West African country’s population follow Voodoo, and Benin has a national holiday to celebrate it. Many Christians and Muslims incorporate some of its beliefs into their faith.
The Baname church, named after Chanvoukini’s hometown, has drawn criticism because it rejects Voodoo entirely.
There have been several violent clashes between Baname followers, who often wear red scarves to identify themselves, and members of other faiths since 2009.
(Reporting by Allegresse Sasse; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)