Sixteen members of the Amish religious sect are facing trial in Ohio for alleged hate crimes, charged with cutting off the beards and hair of critics of their faction leader.

The case has shown an unwanted spotlight on a Christian group that is known primarily for its rejection of modern conveniences and whose tenets include living apart from the non-Amish world as much as possible and resolving their disputes internally.

The Amish appear to be throwbacks to another era. They drive horse-drawn buggies, do not use electricity, live in rural areas and dress plainly. The men wear black hats and pants and have long beards and shaven upper lips. The women donned bonnets and long skirts.

They reject violence and military service, use horses and mules on their farms, do not have televisions or computers in their homes, prohibit higher education and speak a German dialect.

The defendants are charged with terrorising their fellow believers with scissors and razors in an internal dispute over the practices of their faith. Federal prosecutors have charged them with hate crimes, conspiracy and tampering with evidence.

Federal prosecutors said Samuel Mullet Sr, 67, instigated the attacks between September and November. The victims included Myron Miller and his wife, Arlene, who were awakened in the middle of the night by five or six men with long beards and hats standing in the light of an oil lamp at their door, according to The New York Times.

The attackers pulled Miller out of his house and cut off his long black beard.

The beard is a symbol of men’s Amish faith, and the forceful removal was a violation and humiliation. Miller and another victim were upset enough to seek relief in court by reporting the attacks to police.

The defendants are members of a clan led by Mullet, who is charged with having instigated the others, including his sons, to cut the beards and hair of five other Amish believers for their failure to follow his dictates.

According to the FBI, the bishop kept his 120-member band of followers in the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio in line through beatings or other measures.

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