By Michael Gold
TAIPEI, Jan 19 (Reuters) - A young man sporting a rainbow pendant stands before the altar of the Wei-ming temple on the outskirts of Taipei, holding aloft a football-sized box full of prayers written on pieces of paper.
A priest sets the box ablaze, reciting Taoist chants as it burns to ashes. Flames leap up in quick bursts, an apparent sign that the Rabbit God has received his adherent's petitions.
Wei-ming temple is a house of Taoist worship with a twist - almost all of its congregants are gay. The shrine, down a narrow alleyway in a bustling district of New Taipei City, is dedicated to a deity who has watched over homosexuals for four centuries.
"In Chinese history, 'rabbit' was a derogatory term for homosexuals," said Lu Wei-ming, who founded the temple in 2006, at a time gays were excluded from most religious ceremonies.
Lu, who has taken a vow of celibacy and declined to answer questions about his sexuality, said he wanted to create a welcoming environment for a flock that had long been ostracized.
"This was a group with no one to look after them, and I wanted to fill that void," said the 28-year-old priest, adding that Wei-ming is the world's only shrine for homosexuals.
Initiation over, Lu poured a small cup of rice wine on the smoldering ashes of the devotee's prayers.
"Rabbit God loves this kind of liquor," he said.
Pleasing the deity could lead to a match made in heaven. The nearly 9,000 people who seek Lu's counsel each year have one common goal - to find a suitable partner.
A expert on Taiwanese culture said it's a Taoist precept to beseech the gods for a lover, but not usually of the same sex.
"What's interesting about this temple is that sexuality is particularly marked," said DJ Hatfield, a visiting scholar at Taiwan's National Taitung University. "It signifies that there's an emerging public space for queer people in Taiwan."
Liberal attitudes have led to the flourishing of gay culture on the island nation, with Taiwan's parliament debating a bill that would make it Asia's first to legalize same-sex marriage.
Lu said mainstream Taoist society remains stuck in a conservative mindset, although the most vocal opposition to Wei-ming temple has come from members of Taiwan's small yet active Christian community.
Lu described instances of Christian activists protesting in front of the temple, including one pastor who attempted to perform an exorcism before the altar of the Rabbit God. (Editing by Tony Tharakan and Jeremy Laurence)