Sudanese Christians who have barely a month to leave the north or risk being treated as foreigners are starting to move, but Christian leaders are concerned that the 8 April deadline set by Islamic-majority Sudan is unrealistic.
"We are very concerned. Moving is not easy ... people have children in school. They have homes ... It is almost impossible," Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Adwok, the Khartoum archdiocese auxiliary told ENInews in a telephone interview on 7 March.
Sudan in February announced the deadline for the former citizens it had stripped of nationality after South Sudan's January 2011 vote to secede. The ultimatum will affect an estimated 500,000-700,000 people, who are mainly Christians of southern origin that still live in the north.
Many of them fled north during the long civil war fought between the Government of Sudan and the former rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. They have lived there for decades together with children who were born there. Few have ties with South Sudan.
The people are desperate to move, according to reports, following the deadline and increasing tensions between the two nations over oil wealth. The tensions started escalating in January after the north allegedly started taking crude oil from the landlocked south, which it was exporting through a pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
"We want the rights of these people addressed by the two parliaments. Everyone has a right to choose where they want to live. It is a human right," said Adwok.
Sudan amended its laws after the south's independence to say that Sudanese people automatically lose citizenship when they acquire by right or by other means the citizenship of South Sudan. Sudanese people in the north with any parents, grandparents or great grandparents born in the South Sudan or belong to any southern ethnic group are considered that country's nationals.
"That's the official deadline, but we don't know how the Khartoum regime will react," said John Ashworth, an advisor of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum.
Some church leaders fear increased persecution of Christians in the north or even forced repatriation for those who may want to stay. "The fears have been there from the beginning. There could be some form of harassment, and that could intensify after that date, but for forceful removal, it is hard to ascertain," said the Rev. Don Bosco Ochieng, a Roman Catholic priest in the Rumbek diocese.
Aid agencies are calling for the extension of the deadline, warning that it will create a logistical and humanitarian catastrophe.