The Tibetans who plan to relay a "Freedom Torch" through Philadelphia today say they will refrain from shouting anti-China slogans. And that they will offer prayers for those killed in the Sichuan Province earthquake.

Suddenly, criticizing China has become a delicate task.

The demonstrators who will carry the torch as part of a long-planned protest against the Middle Kingdom's human-rights record find they must tread carefully, not only across the cobblestone streets of Old City, but through a political landscape altered by the deaths of at least 40,000 people.

The worldwide running of the Tibetan Freedom Torch is meant to be a shadow protest of the official Beijing Olympic Torch relay. But it's hard to vigorously condemn China when the nightly news shows images of grieving parents searching the rubble for lost children.

"It's an absolute conflict," said a sympathetic Suzanna Murphy, a leader of the local cultural organization Tibetan Women's Crossing who has helped organize today's relay. "I was watching the BBC News . . ."

Her voice trailed off, the scenes from Southwest China now familiar: Towns that look like they've been carpet-bombed, women wailing as they identify family members at temporary morgues, rescue workers moving carefully across mountains of debris.

China temporarily suspended the relay of the Olympic Torch in deference to the dead and injured. The relay of the Tibetan Torch continues as planned.

"The way people felt was most appropriate to go ahead was not to stop speaking about the tragedy that's happening in Tibet, but to express our deepest sympathy with what's happening in China," said Freya Putt, Olympics campaign coordinator of the International Tibet Support Network in Washington.

China's policy in Tibet is one of forceful repression, she said. That hasn't changed.

Yet the effort to spread that message has become newly complicated.

Tsering Wangdi, president of the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia, said six months of planning went into today's torch relay - making it impossible to call off the event. However, he said, unlike the Tibet rallies held this spring on Independence Mall, there will be no anti-China speeches or sloganeering.

"We're not going to do any protest against China. We're just going to do the torch," he said. "We can do our best not to hurt the Chinese people at this moment."

The relay begins at noon at City Hall, with prayers for Tibet and for the victims of the earthquake, organizers said. Then the torch will be carried to the Art Museum and to Independence Mall, where supporters will rally at 2 p.m. The first torch-bearer is scheduled to be Geshe Monlam, a monk who fled Tibet in 1959 with the Dalai Lama.

It's uncertain whether the relay will be met by pro-China demonstrators, as has happened in other cities. What's clear is that, in the battle for public opinion, perception is often reality, and in the lead-up to the summer Olympics, China has been taking a beating.

For many Americans, China has recently become the country that sends them toxic toys and tainted medicines, that won't press its Sudan trading partner to stop atrocities in Darfur, that imprisons monks in Tibet. But then came the May 12 earthquake.

The Philadelphia leg of the relay takes place as China concludes three days of national mourning. For one public relations expert, that timing and the continuing news coverage should compel local Tibetans to delay their event.

"They're doing their cause a disservice by doing the torch now," said Peter Madden, president of AgileCat public relations in Philadelphia.

Madden thinks the running of the Freedom Torch, which sponsors say "symbolizes the hopes and aspirations of the Tibetan people for freedom and justice," is a brilliant public relations idea. But "now would not be the time," he said.

Waiting a week would allow the media coverage to subside and permit the public to return to the Tibet-China issue with fresh eyes.

But Martin Goldstein, who teaches international relations at Widener University in Chester, and who has traveled in China and Tibet, sees no reason the relay shouldn't proceed: People can distinguish between a protest against a government and sympathy for a people.

"I think a lot of Americans would feel the government of China is to be condemned, and the Freedom Torch supported - that doesn't mean you don't support the people who are suffering," he said.

The Tibetan Torch began its journey in Olympia and Athens, Greece, and is scheduled to arrive in Tibet on Aug. 7, the day before the start of the Beijing Olympics.

Murphy, of Tibetan Women's Crossing, which helps Tibetan children and nuns, said it's important for demonstrators at today's relay to convey that their grievance is solely with China's government.

"It's not about the Chinese people," she said. "The Tibetans and the Chinese people, there's common ground."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.