The head of the Sudan Council of Churches has urged U.S. President Barack Obama to help ensure that the January 2011 referendum on self determination for southern Sudan is fair.

The Rev. Ramadan Chan Liol, the general secretary of the council, which includes Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, stressed that a credible process presented the highest chances of southern Sudan and the Abyei people’s verdict being respected in the Jan. 9 poll.

“I urge him [Obama] to help ensure an internationally monitored and protected, transparent, free and fair referendum,”  Chan told ENInews in an interview on Sept. 13.

He was speaking from Khartoum days after the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the situation between the north and south was “a ticking time bomb with enormous consequence,” and independence of the south was “inevitable.”

Chan said Clinton’s assessment of the outcome of the referendum was clearly based on the situation on the ground. He said Obama’s government could send international monitors and technical experts and put pressure on the two parties of Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to carry out the process on time.

The treaty that put an end to a decades-long civil war stipulated that the south should be able to vote on choosing independence from its former protagonists in the north.

Chan said Obama could also ensure that United Nations peacekeeping troops are used to safeguard the process.

“There is no doubt that the south and Abyei will vote for secession if given a transparent, free and fair chance in the referendum. Any result contrary to secession will not be the opinion of the southerners and the people of Abyei,” said Chan.

Still, some Sudanese church leaders warn that the north, a region with many Arabs who are Muslims, may not accept the independence of the south, an area with many Christians and followers of African traditional religions. One reason is that the south hosts most of the oil wealth, which Khartoum uses to run its governmental resources.

Most churches are backing plans by the government of southern Sudan to repatriate nearly two million internally displaced persons from the north, a move being questioned by international relief agencies due to the limited infrastructure in the south.

“The people will be more productive in the south than in the north, where their living conditions have deteriorated much. They will be safer in the south and will be able to participate in the referendum process,” said Chan.