Christians around the world are praying for Sudan as Southern Sudanese begin Sunday a seven-day referendum to vote whether to remain united with the North or become independent.
The long-awaited referendum marks the conclusion of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of bloody civil war between the predominantly Muslim North and the mainly Christian and animist South.
Southern Sudanese are expected to vote for independence from the North, which they say treats them as second-class citizens.
In a statement Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said Jan. 9 was an "immensely important day for Sudan."
He called upon people around the world to stand with the Sudanese people "to ensure that the referendum takes place peacefully and that the process and the results are fully respected."
Church Mission Society is appealing to churches across the U.K. to set aside time Sunday to pray for Sudan and the referendum.
Anglican churches in Salisbury and the Diocese of Connor in Ireland have put up prayer walls and resources on their websites to encourage people to pray for African nation.
In Australia, Anglicans are also being urged to pray for a successful outcome.
Dr. Julianne Stewart, programs director of the Anglican Board of Mission in Australia, said, "We are asking all Anglicans in Australia to pray for peace in Sudan. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, our hope is that the millions of people who have suffered amidst the conflict of the past few decades will come to know lasting peace."
Stewart is scheduled to travel to Sudan later this month.
The World Evangelical Alliance has also issued a call to its members worldwide to pray for a "free, fair and safe" referendum. It is supporting an appeal from one of its member organizations, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, for prayers during and after the Sudan referendum.
"While many seem confident that separation of the South will be the outcome of the January referendum, the hope for a peaceful acceptance by all parties seems much less probable," the EFC said.
The Canadian evangelical body voiced particular concerns over President Omar al-Bashir's promise to change the constitution in the North to Sharia law should the South vote to separate.
It warned that such a move could see an intensification of the persecution of Christians, who are already on the receiving end of discrimination in the North.
The EFC said: "Many are uneasy about what the constitutional changes in the North would mean to the already existing tensions between the North and South, and to the safety of Christians, particularly those living in the North."
"The potential of the new Sharia Law in the North, brings heightened and unsettling concern for the intensified persecution of Christians."