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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Churches in Sudan's mainly Muslim north are trying to reassure their dwindling congregations that they will be safe after the south splits, but Christians fearing repression are still leaving in their droves.
The main churches in the north are resolute they will remain open despite the expected secession of the south in a plebiscite expected to split Africa's largest country.
Southerners are mostly Christian or follow traditional religions. The north has been under Islamic law since 1983.
"Even if there is just one Christian left in the north we will be here because the shepherd cannot leave his flock," said Catholic Quintino Okeny Joseph, Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Khartoum.
The week-long referendum is the culmination of a 2005 north- south peace deal which ended Africa's longest civil war, fought between Sudan's mainly Muslim and Arab north, and the south.
Joseph said Sudan's Catholic Church has had a hard time.
He said the government did not recognise their marriage certificates and had confiscated the Catholic Club -- a massive compound greeting visitors entering Khartoum from the airport.
It has been repainted in Islamic green colours and houses the headquarters of the northern ruling National Congress Party.
Following the 2005 peace, which brought the former southern rebels into national government, churches in the north said their status improved and the rights of non-Muslims in the capital were better protected.
"Now things are better, freedom of worship is there -- if it remains this way and the Christians in the north are respected we will be okay," Joseph said.
But Christians -- the majority of whom are southerners -- have been frightened by comments from President Omar Hassan al- Bashir that the implementation of Islamic sharia law in the north would be strengthened after secession.
"When you read the news the fear will come," said Anglican Reverend Emanual Natania. "The fact that you hear from the leaders that they have decided that sharia law will be the law of the state. As a Christian this touches you so that you fear."
Khartoum has dozens of churches throughout the city, many in prominent locations and set on acres of prime land.
On Sunday's mass in the Anglican Cathedral, just 50 worshippers turned up on what was also the first day of voting, a quarter of the usual mostly southern congregation. U.N. figures say 2,000 southern returnees arrive each day in the south.
"Some of them have gone to the south to vote and will come back, some of them have gone for good. Many of those are concerned about the future," said Reverend Hassan El Fil.
If there is one Christian community not so worried for the future, it's the Copts. Originally from Egypt, Sudan's Coptic Church has been in the north since the 6th Century B.C.
"I tell the people not to worry and there is no problem, the president doesn't want to trouble you," said proto-priest Filotheos Farag, in his distinctive black robes with a long white beard.
Vicar Joseph said Copts were likely treated differently because they were Arabs, not Africans like the southerners.
Farag said it was a cultural difference, taking out a Qu'ran and quoting a verse saying Muslim and Christians share the same God.
In Egypt, his country of origin, Copts have had a difficult time, with a suicide bomber killing 23 churchgoers in the coastal town of Alexandria on New Year's Day.
Farag said he was confident that would never happen in Sudan. During Coptic Christmas last week, prominent Sudanese Muslims visited his home to congratulate him on the holiday.
"The Islam in Sudan is very quiet and very kind and no one from the Muslim people would attack any church," he said.
This was one point all the churches agreed on.
"There are no problems between people in north Sudan, between neighbours -- there is respect," said churchgoer James Jok. "The problem is with the politicians."
Vicar Joseph said: "Before we were Christians and Muslims we were born Sudanese so let that be a unifying factor."