When South Africa began started relaxing its coronavirus or COVID-19 lockdown in May, it allowed the religious worshippers to get in groups of up to 50 but maintained a ban on the people who gathered to drink alcohol.

That's an issue for the "Gabola" church — the name defines drinking in the local language of Tswana, for whom the tipple is also a integral part of their religious worship.

Founded just two years ago, the church tried to hold its usual meetings in local bars, called shebeens, to praise God while downing whiskey, but they soon got arrested, its leader and self-styled 'pope' Tsietsi Makiti, 55, told Reuters. "They can arrest us until Jesus comes back," said Makiti, wearing a bishop's mitre with a miniature bottle of spirits hanging off it. But he added they had been moving services from place to place to avoid a run-in with the authorities.

COVID-19 in South Africa

Alcohol
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On Sunday worshippers met in a rubbish-strewn field in Evaton, south of Johannesburg. As the service started, the 'clergy' blessed some beer bottles in prayer. "At Gabola church you (bring)... the liquor of your choice... and the pastor will bless the liquor so that it will not be poisonous to your body," Makiti said. Wearing flowing black robes and colored scarves, Makiti and five 'clergymen' - none of them are ordained - sat before a table strewn with empty bottles of alcohol.

Makiti's sermon included such proclamations as: "We are a church that will remake the world." "People call me a drunkard," said one worshipper, Nthabiseng Kotope, 38, who said she joined the church in March. "I agree with them. I do God's work while drinking."

Apart from the ban on alcohol, the congregants observe all other coronavirus rules, including the limit of 50 people, the spacing out of chairs, and the use of hand sanitizers. While some Protestant sects teach that alcohol is sinful and to be avoided, most mainstream Christian churches are not opposed to moderate drinking, citing such Biblical stories as Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast.

(With agency inputs)