The Palestinian Broadcasting Authority has sent letters in the past few days to international and Arab television and satellite broadcasting networks, notifying them of an unprecedented decision by the Palestinian Authority to charge fees from any networks wishing to broadcast on Christmas from the area near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Fees will be charged all three dates of Christmas: December 24, for Catholics, Protestants and others; January 6 for Orthodox Christians; and January 18 for Armenians.

The letter was sent by the deputy head of the authority, Ali Abu Rian. He explained that this year - as opposed to previous years - the Palestinian police and the Broadcasting Authority will supervise and arrange all the broadcasts from the Manger Square outside of the church. The fees will be $1,000 for users' fees and another $500 for film and sound crews for each of the three planned holiday dates.

Every year dozens of television stations from all over the world broadcast the Christmas ceremonies from Bethlehem and the PA is expected to receive a large sum from the broadcast fees. In addition, the mass and ceremonies inside the Church of the Nativity will be produced and filmed exclusively by the official Palestinian television station, and no other stations will be allowed to film inside the church.

The letter details the procedures for broadcasting inside the church, and networks that want to show these ceremonies live will have to pay for the rights. Demand for these broadcasts is high throughout the Christian world.

The price for broadcasting the Midnight Mass for each of the three different Christmas dates is $2,000 for foreign television stations, while the news agencies will be charged $6,000 for each date. According to the letter, print journalists and stills photographers will not be charged for covering the ceremonies.

The letter has been met with an angry response from networks, since most conduct live broadcasts from Bethlehem during all the days of the Christmas holidays. Pictures from the church on Christmas reach hundreds of millions of viewers all over the world.

Before the start of the intifada, the Palestinian Authority had charged for the exclusive pictures of the ceremonies inside the church, in which Yasser Arafat participated, but this year's letter added the charges for filming outside of the church in the area of Manger Square. This area is filled with hundreds of journalists every year.

The Christian communities that are part of the ceremony are also incensed over the fees. One of the patriarchs who serves in the Palestinian Authority said, "They are trafficking in Christian holidays, which should be available to every Christian." The patriarch had previously raised the issue with Arafat, and sources say that in the past various groups had charged journalists for rights to broadcast.

This year, for the first time since the start of the current intifada, a number of tourist groups are visiting Bethlehem, and hotel and shop owners in the city are hoping for some recovery in the holiday trade.

Palestinian sources say that they approached Israel with a request a few weeks ago to allow Arafat to participate in the Christmas Mass this year, but the request was denied.