Southern Sudanese Rally for Independence

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WASHINGTON -- Southern Sudanese around the world began registering this week to vote in the upcoming referendum on independence.

The January 9 vote will determine whether the oil-producing region will secede from Sudan and become Africa's newest independent nation.

President Barack Obama called their effort a critical milestone.

"Voter registration is a critical milestone in that process, and we hope that it will continue unabated," a White House statement said.

Meanwhile, rallies are underway across the U.S. to garner support for the vote.

Southern Sudanese held the rally in front of the White House. They want to keep the pressure on the Obama administration to ensure the upcoming vote proceeds as promised.

The partition referendum is part of a peace agreement signed nearly six years ago that ended the 22-year war between the Muslim north and the Christian south.

Southerners fear the Islamic government may delay or cancel the vote.

However, it isn't just that referendum they're concerned about.They're also concerned about an oil rich region called Abyei.

Abyei currently lies just north of the north-south demarcation line. More than 100 years ago the city was in the south. Most people living there are Christians.

"And they want to decide their future," said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of Government of South Sudan Mission to the United States. "They cannot afford to continue to be Islamized and Arabized by the North."

The comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2005 guarantees a second referendum -- this one only for the people of Abyei. It was also scheduled for January 9. The people of Abyei will decide if they should join the South as part of a new nation.

The Khartoum regime launched a massive military raid against Abyei in May 2008. One hundred people were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes. The people there allege the Islamic government wants to provoke renewed fighting so it can cancel the referendum, drive them away, and seize their oil.

"This is the truth that we want everybody to know," said Ashai Bagat, an Abyei resident. "This is our oil. This is our land; everything is ours."

The United Nations Security Council this week reaffirmed it's committment to the two referendums and a peaceful transition if southerners approve separation.

But what will happen if the January vote is cancelled or the Sudanese government refuses to acknowledge a pro-independence outcome?

"If the north is going to deny us our rights, then we will actually fight for it," Gatkuoth said.

Still, Sudanese like former child slave Francis Buk believe a return to war can be averted. He's praying that American Christians will get involved once again.

"We hope they will continue praying, continue supporting with humanitarian aid," Buk said. "They will continue pressuring their leaders and I think through Christians groups -- including the Jewish community -- they have stood with us. I want to say to them please do continue. The journey has not yet finished."

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