About a month before two historic votes will determine the future of Sudan, a group of Presbyterians and partners convened here to worship, discuss mission and share stories from the country.

The Sudan Mission Network got updates on the ongoing work of mission partners and involved groups like Nile Theological College, Volunteers in Medical Missions and Across, a Christian NGO that builds the church and communities for renewal. The Rev. James Par Tap, moderator of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, was also present.

Much of the Dec. 6-7 meeting focused on the Jan. 9 referenda votes — one of which will decide if southern Sudan will secede from the rest of the country and another that will determine the final status of Abyei, an oil-rich area in the center of the country. The referenda came out of Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the country’s decades-long civil war.

Roger Winter, special advisor to the “autonomous” Government of Southern Sudan, spoke at length about his experiences in the country.

The South — made up of largely Christians and animists — has essentially been devoid of development, Winter said, adding that the lack of economic progress there is not accidental. Khartoum — the northern and predominantly Muslim capital of Sudan — has not simply benignly neglected the South.

“(Khartoum leaders) really do want the land (of the South) without the people on it,” Winter said.

Winter believes that the South will vote to secede.

“There has been no effort on the part of Khartoum to make unity attractive,” he said. “My belief is that … the South is going to vote for separation. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that whatsoever if there’s any degree of integrity about the way the vote is counted.”

Winter said that the referendum requires more than a simple majority to pass. In addition, 60 percent of the people registered to vote must actually turn out to cast their ballots.

Hence, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement — the largest political force in Southern Sudan — is encouraging people not to register to vote unless they’re certain they can actually turn out to vote.

“It’s too late to stop. It isn’t too late to corrupt,” Winter said.

Winter outlined what he sees as three key problems of Southern Sudan: its government is weak in every possible sense, governmental corruption is rampant, and there is widespread communal violence.

The first two problems can be addressed, Winter said. Change will be a long and difficult process, but it is possible. But he isn’t so sure about ending the violence.

“Honestly, this is the one I really don’t know how to deal with,” he said, appealing to the mission network to use its relationships within Sudanese communities to find solutions.

Michael Weller, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s regional liaison for the Horn of Africa, also acknowledged the strength of relationships fostered by and within the Sudan Mission Network, which is a core of knowledge, interest and support for the country.

“Thank you for your community and the continuation of your commitment,” he said.

There are many struggles in the Horn of Africa, but Sudanese people continue to present the word of Jesus Christ and show courage in their faith, Weller said. And although there is much concern that the referenda won’t happen peacefully — or at all — the Sudanese are determined to persevere and continue to be people of God in their land.

If the referendum for Southern secession does pass, the Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Church and the Presbyterian Church of Sudan will be present to minister to communities — and will need international support.

Like Moses in the wilderness, people will have high expectations of the church, Weller said.

“They’re going to need our encouragement and out listening ears and our ability to respond as they seek to minister to these amazing people,” he said. “We are looking forward to seeing the wonderful things God will accomplish.”

The Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church’s Tap said the situation in Sudan now is not good. He’s seeing a level of fear he hasn’t seen before, and many people who have moved to the North (or even to other countries such as the United States) now want to go home before the vote.

“I need your prayers for that,” he said.

In this month leading up to the vote, the PC(USA) is inviting Presbyterians to join in a season prayer with and for Sudan. For nine designated dates, Presbyterians are encouraged to pray for 30 minutes as Sudanese pray at the same time in their country.

The PC(USA) Peacemaking Program and United Nations office have provided suggested prayers.

Many Sudanese will fast from Jan. 7-9, and U.S. Presbyterians are encouraged to consider this practice as well.