Why I changed my faith – I was a Muslim then I became a Christian
A pastor’s story – in his own words
What made Femi Cakolli change his faith from Islam to Christianity? How did he go from wanting to become a Muslim priest to becoming an atheist? What made him change his mind again to embrace Christ? Why was he called a spy by both the Serbian and Albanian news services? Why did his neighbors call him “crazy”? Why did a Serbian journalist write a book about this group of which Femi was a part? Femi speaks exclusively for us about the interesting events of his life.
My childhood and youth: from Islam to atheism
Just like every child, a lot of my beliefs came from my family. Among them was my faith, the forming of my religion. Coming from a Muslim family, I inherited Islamic practices and knowledge. Even today I remember the lessons of that time: the Muslim faith is the purest faith; the Muslim faith is the most correct; Mohammed is the last prophet and the most loved of God; every child is born a Muslim; Muslims have “Bajram”, the mosque, the Koran, the priest, etc. They must pray and that’s it. Then, as I grew up in the midst of our one-time “revolutionary” youth, it was considered embarrassing to believe and practice these things, to believe in the existence of God. It was considered bad to go to the mosque or to church, because “the faith of the Albanian is Albanianism”. We as a family, especially my older brothers, were illegal nationalist activists organized in different groups and influenced by patriotic and Marxist-Leninist literature, and all this served to encourage in me the idea that there was no God. Therefore as a young man I began to regard the question of faith differently. I believed that there was no God and that nature itself is God; that the Koran wasn’t a holy book; that Islam was an Arabic nationalist movement which we didn’t need since our faith was Albanianism and the “word of honor” was the priest of Albanianism; that the “hoxhas” (Muslim priest) are the biggest spies of Serbia; that the hoxha only goes up the minaret if paid; that science is the answer for everything, etc.
An attempt to become a hoxha!
My father was a village hoxha for many years and in one way also through him I learned the more hidden aspects of faith of the Muslim clerics, of Islamic literature and the scale of ignorance and primitiveness of the crowds at the mosque and in life. My father wanted me to register at the Islamic school in Prishtina. It was 1985. I was in the second year of middle school. I didn’t want to go to the Islamic school. In the end, despite many efforts to get me in, I was not accepted. I remember when the commission responsible for accepting new students asked me these three questions:
Why didn’t I become a village priest?
Firstly, I was afraid when thinking about the future, as I was so young. When someone would die I was afraid of death and especially of old age. I knew that I would have to wash the bodies if I became a priest. Think about it, a young 18-year-old priest, washing the naked corpse of 90-year-old man. Oh God, how could I manage this religious life and what kind of God would require such a thing of me?
The second thing was that if I became a Muslim priest, I would no longer be able to hang out with my friends. I wouldn’t be able to play football, to swim in the river, to watch sports on TV, I wouldn’t be able to wear the clothes I liked, etc.
The third thing was that it seemed to me as if I was betraying the ideals of our youth who were suffering in prison for the ideals of our nation, because as a hoxha I wouldn’t have as much credibility as those patriots, revolutionaries, etc. What would I have as a hoxha? Villagers would give me formal respect; I would have with me a crowd of old hard of hearing people who wouldn’t understand well; I would have the opportunity to receive money from anyone who died in my province, and I could expect offerings at Ramadan and holidays. In one way I understood that the call of being a hoxha would isolate me from life, from youth, from ideals, from new horizons of knowledge, from the freedom, which I dreamed I had in the depth of my spirit, and if I accepted this fate, afterwards I wouldn’t have anything to take pride in, either as a young man or as an Albanian. I often thought about writing a book about these events. Up until then and up until I had finished middle school, I hadn’t known that Albanians were also Christians as well as Muslims. I didn’t even know anything about other nations. I thought that all people were Muslim, apart from the Serbs. Influenced by the Islamic worldview my hate at that time towards the Serbs was simply because they were “of the cross” and not because they were our enemies and oppressors, this I learned only from the patriots.
The first Albanian writers, yes they were priests
In 1989 I arrived in Prishtina to study Albanian Literature, mostly because I wanted to learn about the spirit, literature and history of our culture. I now had a great commitment from reading different books of my own free choice, from listening to different professors, taking part in meetings and symposiums, living in an atmosphere of youth, etc. These influenced me in thinking I could find answers to my questions through analysis. I also came up against some new questions in my mind. I was living in the dormitory and sharing a room with an Albanian Catholic from Stublia e Vitisë. I learned through my studies of our literature and history that at one time all Albanians had been Christians and that there were also still Christians today, that the Catholic church existed even in Prishtina, that our national literature for about 300 years had written been written almost exclusively by either Catholic or Orthodox priests. Zeal for my studies of ancient Albanian literature during my first year led me to the Catholic church in Prishtina as well as to the Protestant church also in Prishtina, in order to search for more religious and psychological literature.
When I learned that in fact the big mosque in Prishtina had been a church…
Discovering these two churches awoke in me an interest in the practices of Christian life. In the meantime I came across other pieces of information such as the fact that the big mosque in Prishtina had been a church 280 years before and that in its yard Pjeter Bogdani was buried, that the building of the National Theatre had been a church, that another church had been knocked down in Prishtina and in its place another building put up, that there were still many families secretly practicing their Christian faith, even though to others they were Muslims, etc.
Another thing I noticed was the difference between religious rituals church and those of the mosque, the difference between the priest and the “hoxha”, between the Bible and the Koran, between Christian culture and Islam, between the West and the East. At the Catholic mass I had seen young people, girls and children, whereas at the mosque you see mainly old men. The priest speaks Albanian, the hoxha Arabic and occasionally very poor Albanian. The comparisons are terrible. I started to read the book “Rrethimi i Shkodres” by Marin Barletit. Among other things it talks about the beauty and the courage of Albanian women. As I read these descriptions I saw the Shkodran mother 500 years ago (beautiful, brave, patriotic) and my own mother today with her own beauty covered in clothing despised by the Shkodrans whereas the main attribute of her personality was “to be silent, to give birth, to serve.”
When I started to read the Bible, I encountered our own Ilirian, Dalmatian and Nikopoyen history
At that time, not because I had any theological training on these things, but because of my contact with Christians, and because of my knowledge of Islam, I began to see some great differences. Christians, especially the evangelicals, persevere in holy living, in forgiveness, in repentance, in love, in continual spiritual freedom. This is never required of Muslims. When I started to read the Bible, among other things I encountered our own Ilirian, Dalmatian and Nikopoyan history, and it therefore seemed more familiar, whereas the Koran, which I had difficulty understanding, seemed very far away. The Bible I saw as an encyclopaedic history of knowledge of many peoples, whereas the Koran is more like an unclear Arabic biblical summary. To become a Christian you need contact with and experience of God, whereas Islam claims to be inherited from before birth. This idea of inheriting faith is one of the biggest errors of religious doctrine as it means that there will never be spiritual renewal of believers. We know that things, riches, materials goods, culture, etc are inherited, but not ideas or religion. In Christianity I found a greater freedom and tolerance than with Islam. There is no greater comparison to understand the difference between Christianity and Islam than with the works and life of Christ and that of Mohammed.
John and our former faith
I remembered my father and others telling me that at one time our family, which came from the village of Leskocit 270 years ago, was Orthodox Christian and that John was the name of our last Christian forefather who had become Muslim. From childhood I had had a respect and great love for this name. Our forefather was John and he and I were separated by only 11 generations. In the year 1991, for the first time I had a New Testament and one of the gospels called “the Gospel of John”. This was the gospel through which God spoke to me in a profound way.
It was March of 1992 when I finally gave my heart to Jesus
It was March of the year 1992 when I finally gave my heart to Jesus as God and my saviour. God had given me a vision in which he called me to become his priest (separated for him, valued by him, dedicated to him). This was a personal experience and I surrendered to this spiritual call of God.
I had a personal experience of God’s blessing on my. I accepted Jesus into my life as ruler and lord. I said a prayer of salvation and repentance from sins. This was my first ever prayer to God entirely in Albanian. I experienced freedom and was touched spiritually. No one could move me in my faith in Christ. I was completely in control of this decision. Christ didn’t require me to change my name or surname, neither to wear any special clothing, nor to spiritualise this faith, but simply that my life please God and that my heart be committed to him. Nor was I required to become Catholic or Orthodox, but to follow him and become his disciple.
Why did the Serbs as well as Albanians think I was working for the CIA?
I first started to proclaim my faith at the Protestant church in Prishtina and then among my family and friends. I received a harsh reaction. I had never had such a reaction before, whether speaking about Buddha or Confucius, Plato or Mohammed, Abraham or Marks or Lenin, etc. However, when I spoke about Christ, there were strong feelings. I understood then the aspect of spiritual warfare, light against darkness. The Bible says that the darkness and the Devil oppose Christ who comes from heaven, from light, whereas the world is ready to accept whatever comes from itself. Opposition came and continues to come today, from people or different groups. I remember when I was invited by some Serbian police inspectors to discuss my faith. They mocked me saying: “You were born a Muslim and that’s how you should die. Why would Christ be interested in you, he belongs to us, you belong to the Turks, to the Arabs. Listen to your father. All Albanians are Muslims.” The Serbian police interrogated me a few times, watched my home thinking that I was a spy for the CIA together with all evangelicals in Prishtina. Articles against us and the evangelical movement in Kosova were even published in the newspapers “Jedinstvo” and “Politika”. A book was written about us, in two volumes, called: “Kill Your Neighbor”. In 1995, after having heard about this, some Albanian politicians invited me to come and talk with them. They were also convinced that we were working with the CIA. I made it clear to them that this was not the case. One of them told me: “We know who you are. You don’t need to tell us.” Many others, Albanians, told me that they thought we were linked to the Serbs. The Catholics called us “Laramanis” and said that we couldn’t be Christians because we weren’t born Christians. Some of my friends told me I was crazy to be concerned with faith and such fruitless questions. Intellectuals called us a sect; others said I changed faith for money. In 1996 the most important hoxha of Prishtina wanted to speak to me. He asked me to publicly deny my faith, otherwise, according to him, many other Muslims would take on this faith. Jesus warned us that for his sake we would be persecuted and rejected. I am happy and at peace with a secure and active faith fulfilling God’s two great commands: Love the Lord your God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself and spread the kingdom of God among all people. We should even thank God for opposition to our faith. What kind of faith would it be if it wasn’t tested at all. God bless you!
Literature ne Librarine B.U.M