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Feature: Iranian cleric makes wedding dreams come true
         TEHRAN, Dec 25 (Reuters) - An Internet site run by a Muslim cleric may not sound like an obvious route to wedded bliss.
But hundreds of Iranians, frustrated by traditional marriage customs and strict restrictions on mingling with the opposite sex, are turning to mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric Jafar Savalanpour Ardabili to find their ideal match.
Such is the demand for his services that Ardabili, 38, has had to restrict access to his website (www.ardabili.com) to process the floods of applications from those in search of love.
"This place is like an Islamic coffee shop where people can meet each other, have a healthy relationship and finally get married," Ardabili said at his cramped office on the third-floor of a non-descript building overlooking a busy Tehran street.
In a country where many women are forced into marriages brokered by their parents and morals police often close down coffee shops and restaurants where young boys and girls discretely flirt and exchange telephone numbers, Ardabili sees himself as a bridge between the modern and traditional world.
"We cannot forget all about our past, and on the
other hand we cannot just stick to traditions because they sometimes fail to satisfy our needs," he said.
The modern Iranian woman, he points out, typically has a university degree -- over 60 percent of students entering higher education are now women. Many have jobs or run small businesses.
For them, traditional marriage customs -- a complex, class-ridden
procedure whereby the families of the prospective couple first reach an
agreement before the man formally proposes -- are anachronistic and
Ardabili, whose white turban, black clerical robe and beard belie a jovial personality, has a more liberal approach.
"It is important that women should be given the choice to choose their future husbands. I don't want women to waste their time waiting for their fate, destiny, and thousands of their sweet fantasies to come true," he said.
A section on his website contains queries from people struggling to reconcile their sexual urges with religious beliefs or fretting over the realisation that they are gay.
But Ardabili, whose website contains links to official endorsements by senior Shi'ite clerics, is quick to distinguish his from other Iranian sites offering love over the Internet.
"Mine is not a friendship Internet dating service. We are using the Internet as a tool to help those who are willing to get into married life. I am not matchmaking here," he said.
In the waiting room, fairy lights and soft music lighten the heavy, expectant atmosphere that hangs over the group of mostly middle-aged men and younger-looking women.
"The fact that the marriage was being carried out under the supervision of a cleric gave our family a lot of confidence," said Ali, the brother of a blind chemist who was about to marry a woman he met through Ardabili.
Since he started six years ago, Ardabili has brokered 1,000 unions.
 His clients range in age from 16 to 82 and he receives around 30 new
 applicants a day.
Those who fill out the basic form over the Internet are invited to his office and asked to answer more probing questions which take two hours to complete.
Questions include: "Are you interested in going to parties?", "Will you stay married if you learn your spouse can't have children?", "What will you do if your family opposes the union?".
After studying the answers, Ardabili selects a shortlist of five prospective partners for the applicant and allows them to look through their forms. No photographs are shown at this stage.
"If we give them the photograph they stop reading the forms and concentrate solely on that."
Once a preferred match has been selected, their photographs are exchanged and if they are still keen to proceed a first meeting is arranged, at Ardabili's office, in his presence.
If that goes well the couple are then encouraged to start dating and to get to know each other. He continues to keep tabs on each couple's progress and offers psychological and even sexual counselling to those who ask for it.
He refuses to handle requests for temporary marriage -- unique to Shi'ite Islam which allows couples to "wed" for a few hours or several years -- and says he fails to see how any sane man could want to marry more than one wife.
As he enthused about his work an assistant interrupted and asked him to solve a sudden crisis.
A female client had called very upset because her prospective husband had delayed his marriage proposal for several weeks and had only just asked for permission to come around with his parents to ask for her hand.
"Just tell her that he needed some time to talk to his family
before formally proposing to her. He did not mean to offend her or her family," Ardabili shot back, without hesitation.
A few minutes later the assistant returned to announce that the
girl was delighted with his explanation. Another wedding photo for
Ardabili's bulging album beckoned.
 (Additional reporting by Parinoosh


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