Sudan entered its second day of voting on Monday with massive turnouts at polling stations.
Nearly 4 million southern Sudanese, mostly Christian, are expected to partake in the weeklong vote that will likely split Africa's largest country in two.
"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," said Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir, according to The Associated Press.
U.S. officials, celebrities and church leaders are keeping a close eye on the referendum in hopes of a peaceful and fair voting process. Episcopalians in the United States held prayer vigils in the days leading up to the vote, especially as Sudanese in the U.S. also prepared to cast their votes at polling stations in eight U.S. cities.
Two days into the referendum, violence has claimed the lives of at least 33 people. Disputes occurred over the ownership of oil-rich Abyei, an area on the north-south border.
Despite some conflict, voters overall have been expressing excitement and hope for the future.
Larry Duffee, an Episcopal Church missionary from Fredericksburg, Va., told the Episcopal News Service that the people in Juba in Southern Sudan "are so excited about the referendum and for playing their part through voting."
"There is just such an incredible sense of hope and optimism here, it's truly amazing to be here to witness these historic events," he highlighted.
The referendum marks the culmination of a six-year process that began with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which was signed to end more than two decades of civil war. The war left some 2 million people dead.
It is expected that the majority Christian South will secede from the mainly Muslim North.
According to Open Doors USA's latest World Watch List, persecution decreased slightly between November 2009 and October 2010 for Christians in North Sudan compared to the previous year. Church leaders have urged for prayers during this week's vote for the protection of the Christian minority in the North.