Lost in Asian flute melodies flowing from a small boom box, Falun Gong practitioners sat motionless on small mats, legs folded beneath them. Seated lakeside at Richmond's Deep Run Park, they meditated with eyes closed, hands pressed firmly together, arranged in silence like a community of stone statues.

No one disturbed them.

But if they performed the exercise in Beijing, the practitioners could risk arrest, beating or even death because the spiritual practice is illegal, said Leejun Ivie, a Richmond Falun Gong practitioner.

"It's brutal, what is going on in China," Ivie said. "People are dying for their beliefs."

Ivie and 30 Virginia-based Falun Gong practitioners meditated in Richmond's Deep Run Park yesterday during a series of welcoming events for four cyclists who are en route from Orlando, Fla., to Washington to protest alleged human rights abuses inflicted on practitioners by the atheist Chinese government.

The meditation session, a news conference and a parade through "Richmond Chinatown" on Horsepen Road yesterday were all events designed to call attention to the cyclists cause, said Ivie, who coordinated yesterday's activities.

The cyclists arrived in Richmond Saturday night, after leaving from Orlando on July 1. The group will have covered close to 1,000 miles when it arrives in Washington on Thursday for a national Falun Gong rally.

While no one on the bicycle team has been a victim of religious persecution, they all felt compelled to do something to stop the violence in China, they said.

"This was something small I could do to help stop the persecution," said Chris Jasurek, an Orlando native. "When enough good-hearted people find out about this, they will do what they can to stop it."

"I get moved, often to tears, when I read the accounts in newspapers," said Robert Lu, a computer programmer from Atlanta who joined the cycling team mid-journey last week. "So I got a bicycle."

The cyclists have covered up to 100 miles per day, biking close to 16 hours on some days, said Elly Xu, an Orlando member of the squad. Carrying the message "SOS Urgent: Rescue the Falun Gong Practitioners Persecuted in China," the team yesterday marked its 15th day of travel. None of the cyclists are trained athletes.

Her weathered skin peeling from sun damage, Xu said the journey has been grueling physically.

"At the beginning, your heart is squeezed like the blood is not enough for your body," she said. "The blisters begin itching. The muscles hurt, the knees hurt. But compared to what they face in China, we are nothing."

The team is part of an international campaign sponsored by Falun Gong practitioners worldwide. Walking and riding groups left Boston, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston and Los Angeles as early as June 26 to journey to Washington, where they hope they can alert the nation to the injustice occurring in China, Xu said.

"In China's state-controlled media . . . all the information is false," Xu said. "We want our American media to tell the people what is really happening."

The practice was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a United States-based practitioner, and promotes truthfulness, compassion, and benevolence [editor's note: it should be truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance], followers say. [...] meditation practices include a set of five stretches that are designed to mobilize inner energy and pull energy from the cosmos.

The Chinese government outlawed the practice in July 1999 after 10,000 Falun Gong followers staged a sit-in to protest accounts about the movement published in China's state-controlled newspapers. If caught practicing, members are deported to re-education camps, which Falun Gong members say are abusive.

More than 200 people have died in those camps, and it has to stop, the cyclists said.

Falun Gong practitioners have emphasized repeatedly that they do not have a political agenda, [...] At the height of the movement, 70 million people practiced Falun Gong in China, although most practice now occurs in seclusion, Ivie said.

"We do not want to overthrow the Chinese government. We just want to be left alone so we can practice," said Dong Xiang, a Fairfax native and Falun Gong practitioner who came to welcome the cycling team.

Richmond's Falun Gong community is small, composed of approximately 10 to 15 people gathering in Deer Run Park on Sunday mornings to meditate. There is no official organization or hierarchy, and practitioners communicate primarily through secure Web sites and e-mail.

Participation is free, and followers of the movement insist the group is not [Jiang Zemin government's slanderous term omitted], or even religious.

"We do not worship a god or higher being," Ivie said. "We're regular people, who have families and responsibilities, who want to elevate ourselves spiritually and mentally."

The cyclists hope their journey will dispel what they see as misconceptions about the movement and call attention for the need to stop the persecution in China. A second walking group from Atlanta will give a news conference at 3 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall. The cyclists will hold additional news conferences in Fredericksburg and Alexandria before arriving in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday for the rally.

But when the events are finished, they won't be traveling home on bicycles, they said. "I'm not really sure how I'm getting back," Xu said. "We're just trying to get there."