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An ongoing referendum in Sudan will likely cut Africa's largest country in two, with the current government retaining control of the northern piece. Already, officials there have announced what they will do with their share - create an Islamic state where fundamentalist law will dominate even more than it does now.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the capital, Khartoum, and she reports that the government's plan has the millions of Christians who live in the North fearing for the future.

(Soundbite of singing)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Two Christian women in this slum outside Khartoum sing that Jesus will protect and guide them as they travel south. For the women and thousands of others here in Jabarona who wait outside with their belongings, the trip can't come fast enough.

(Soundbite of arguments)

NELSON: Arguments erupt over whose belongings are loaded first. Everyone seems to fear being left behind.

Mr. JOSEPH YEL: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: One of those leaving is Joseph Yel. He says that he and other Christians have long felt mistreated by the police. They predict things will only get worse if Islam once again becomes the law of the land. Yel says it's better to go south to an ancestral homeland where many of them haven't lived in decades, than stay here.

Saints Peter and Paul Parish, the second-largest Catholic church in greater Khartoum, has already lost about three-quarters of its parishioners, says Father Musa Timothy Kacho. He adds many have left for good because they fear fundamentalists and state security forces will come after them here.

Father MUSA TIMOTHY KACHO (Priest, Saints Peter and Paul Parish): They may take another step of expelling the priests from the North here.

NELSON: Have you heard this from somebody?

Father KACHO: I heard from somebody.

NELSON: Like in the government?

Father KACHO: Like the government.

NELSON: Khartoum officials vehemently deny they are going after Christians. But they favor the ongoing exodus of southerners, who the officials say can't have it both ways. If they vote to secede, they will lose the right to stay in Northern Sudan. Their departure leaves behind a population the government claims will be 98 percent Muslim.

Christians who remain behind have nothing to fear from a new constitution based on Islamic law, says Ibrahim Ghandour, who is secretary of political relations for the ruling National Congress Party.

Secretary IBRAHIM GHANDOUR (Secretary of Political Relations, National Congress Party): You can see that the church is by the side of the mosque. Christians in the North will do better. Their rights will be ensured. They know very well that Islam in Sudan is a religion of forgiveness.

NELSON: But many Christians don't believe it. The Sudan Council of Churches, which represents 14 denominations here, issued a decree last week calling for a constitution fully guaranteeing all citizens' rights.

Others, like this Arab pastor for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, says he's thinking about seeking asylum. He fears arrest if NPR uses his real name.

Unidentified Man #1: Now our brothers and sisters from the South are going, we like feel we are losing our shield or our umbrella. So I think the situation is going worse because we don't know what's going to happen, but we can guess that persecution is coming.

NELSON: The pastor is especially in danger because he converted from Islam to Christianity. Some interpretations of Islam view such conversions as punishable by death. What Sudan will do is not yet known. The pastor and several other converts meet NPR to talk about their worries. One is a sociologist.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: He says even before the referendum, his situation was getting tougher. He recounts how a couple of months ago, a local newspaper outed him and others for converting to Christianity.

The writer asked why Islamic groups weren't going after the converts. The sociologist says afterward, his wife was attacked by a man with a knife in their home. He says he hopes people will pray for Christians who choose to stay in Northern Sudan.

Those who stay may also find refuge at shelters being set up by some churches. Father Kacho of Saints Peter and Paul says he's stockpiling water at a local school should violence break out. But he spends most of his time easing parishioners' fears.

Rev. KACHO: Now, we are trying to prepare people slowly. We are trying to tell them, now you try to be calm as long as the voting is going on and try also to be calm when the result is announced.

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Khartoum.

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