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TEHRAN (Reuters Life!) - In Islamic Iran where clerics rule, unofficial "prayer sellers," who promise to intercede with the divine to solve all manner of life's problems, are seeing their business boom.
Backstreet spiritual guides like YaAli are tolerated by the authorities and increasingly sought after by Iranians seeking help from on high.
"People from all walks of life -- mostly young women -- come here asking for prayers that can solve their problems," says YaAli sitting on a chair in a crumbly old alley in Tehran.
Stroking his white beard, YaAli -- a nickname he has been given by his customers -- explains how each prayer must be used in its own specific way.
"There are lots of methods depending on the problems. Some prayers (written on a piece of paper) should be burned and some should be put in a bowl of water. You should follow the instructions."
According to Islam, prayers have a divine source and make a spiritual connection between God and his servants. Those who have the right religious knowledge can write prayers for others to help them obtain better results.
Regular customer Mahoor says YaAli helped her shake off a stalker. "I didn't see him any more after YaAli gave me the prayers," says the 26-year-old nurse.
Mahoor and several of her friends come to YaAli believing his prayers will change their destiny and stop bad things happening to them.
"This time I want prayers that will make my boyfriend marry me. He says he doesn't have enough money to start a new life," Mahoor says of her reluctant beau.
Iran's clerics also believe in the power of prayer but they advise people against using prayers that lack a religious basis. Magic and superstition are both illegal under Islamic law.
"Writing prayers quoting Shia's immaculate Imams and receiving money for that has no legal obstacle," said Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani when asked about the religious legitimacy of the prayer sellers.
"But referring to prayers written by hustlers without reliable sources is not permitted, and getting money for those kinds of prayers is (religiously) forbidden," he told news website hawzah.net.
Despite what Iranian clerics say, none of YaAli's customers ask him about the basis of his knowledge, which he says is founded on the Koran.
"It is not important where his knowledge comes from, I just want my problems to be solved," said Marjan, 24, who complains it is getting harder to see YaAli as customer demand increases.
"It seems people are facing more problems these days," she says with a bitter smile.
It is not difficult to find prayer writers in Iran -- a simple Internet search brings up dozens of phone numbers.
Marjan says a lack of government support for women is one reason so many turn to them.
"Despite the high prices, I know some people -- especially women -- who still refer to them as their last resort," she says. "Some women even ask for prayers to make their family life stronger."
Editing by Paul Casciato