Local Tibetans ran a ceremonial "Freedom Torch" through Philadelphia yesterday, their pace and rhetoric subdued in recognition of the thousands killed in the Sichuan Province earthquake.

"Free Tibet, free Tibet," the demonstrators chanted, but only for a minute, and quietly, upon reaching Independence Hall after a nearly three-hour relay.

"This movement is not anti-China; this is pro-Tibet, pro-human rights, pro-freedom," said Kalaya'an Mendoza of Students for a Free Tibet.

The worldwide running of the Tibetan Freedom Torch is a shadow protest of the official Beijing Olympic Torch relay. Last week's deadly earthquake has forced Tibetan protesters to tread gently in criticizing China's human-rights record, and organizers took pains yesterday to say they opposed the communist government, not the Chinese people.

The aim of the event was "not only to advance the cause of the Tibetan people, but also in honor of those who have lost their lives, their families, their homes, and their livelihoods," said Jeff Granett, an organizer who serves on the board of the U.S. Tibet Committee.

The ceremonies began outside City Hall, with about 50 Tibetans and western supporters gathered under sunny skies, a dozen blue, red and gold Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze. People wore gold T-shirts emblazoned, "Let freedom ring in Tibet."

Buddhist monks led prayers for the people of Tibet and for the more than 40,000 Chinese killed in the earthquake. Then came the singing of the Tibetan national anthem.

"Too bad I couldn't hear it when I was in Tibet, huh?" one woman said, noting that Chinese authorities ban displays of Tibetan nationalism.

Yesterday, some government workers and businesspeople who walked across the City Hall plaza during their lunch break weren't quite sure what they were seeing.

"It's the opening ceremony for the Olympics and stuff," one passerby told a friend.

Actually the Tibetan torch is traveling to 50 cities and scheduled to arrive in Tibet on Aug. 7, the day before the start of the Beijing Olympics.

"With this Freedom Torch, we have a lot of hopes for getting support from the people in the west," said Tsering Wangdi, head of the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia. "We want to send a message to the rest of the world: We're still under Chinese rule."

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

Wangdi said six months of planning went into yesterday's relay, making it impossible to cancel the event. However, unlike pro-Tibet rallies held this spring, this one carefully avoided anti-China speeches and sloganeering.

The Freedom Torch - actually lit by a small electric bulb, not a flame - left City Hall in the hands of Geshe Monlam, an elderly monk who fled Tibet in 1959 with the Dalai Lama. Two young men supported his arms as he moved forward and through traffic.

Soon the torch was passed to others, kept always at the head of a throng of 50 who chanted prayers for peace as they walked.

The torch moved through LOVE Park, past non-plussed office workers eating sandwiches, past joggers who never changed expression, to Logan Circle, where drops of wind-blown fountain water cooled the marchers. It moved across the Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum. There, two Tibetans carried the torch up the steps, causing tourists to pause in their own Rocky reenactment and snap photos.

The group circled back along the Parkway to Independence Hall, where 20 supporters waited - as did much-welcomed bottles of water.

"We will stand in solidarity . . . with the Chinese people," said Granett, the U.S. Tibet Committee member. "Not just those who are victims of the earthquake but also the great majority of Chinese citizens who have been deprived of their basic human rights."

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