PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - Is nothing sacred?

For four years, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus have placed a Nativity scene in front of Independence Hall without incident.

But this year, on Saturday or Sunday, a figurine of the baby Jesus - and the bolted-down crib where it lay - went missing from the creche.

A maintenance worker discovered the theft of the 12-pound, foot-long statue of a blond baby Jesus, valued at $600, said a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, Jane Crowley.

The wooden 12-by-15-foot creche, with a half-dozen near-life-size figurines, is just in front of a globe that bears the inscription, "Peace on Earth . . . From your friendly neighborhood atheists, freethinkers and humanists."

Late yesterday afternoon, members of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Jenkintown rushed to the scene with a replacement baby Jesus, just in time for a dedication ceremony attended by close to 50 people, including the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Joseph McFadden.

But Immaculate Conception parishioner John Stanton, who obtained the replacement figurine, said it would have to be returned to Jenkintown later in the evening for that congregation's creche.

Former City Councilman Fran Rafferty, who attended the event, glumly pointed out that "nobody bothered that atheist globe back there."

McFadden blessed the creche with incense and holy water. "It's a shame any religious denomination could be defamed like that," he said beforehand. "I thought we respected diversity."

To Msgr. Daniel Sullivan of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, however, the thefts came as no surprise.

"I'm from South Philadelphia," he said. "For the last two years, the baby Jesus has been stolen out of our manger."

About 20 third graders in Santa hats and holding plastic candles attended the blessing as well. They were from nearby St. Mary's School, which school officials said is the oldest Catholic school in the country.

Teacher Michelle DiClaudio said the youngsters had not been told about the heists.

"We try to keep them away from stuff like this," she said.