CARROLLTON, Ohio – Leaders within Ohio's Amish community faced a soul-searching question after what they say were hair-cutting attacks against several followers of their faith. Should they cooperate with authorities or adhere to their beliefs of forgiving one another and keeping disputes private?
In the end, church bishops decided to seek help from the outside.
"They didn't feel they could get it stopped any other way," said Timothy Zimmerly, a sheriff in Holmes County where authorities say an Amish bishop and his son were held down while men from a breakaway Amish group used scissors and a clipper to cut their beards.
Five men were arrested and accused of cutting the hair of several people, offensive acts to the Amish, who believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry.
While the attacks in recent weeks might seem bizarre to outsiders, they have struck at the core of the Amish identity and tested their principles. They strongly believe that they must be forgiving in order for God to forgive them. Often that means handing out their own punishment and not reporting crimes to law enforcement.
One couple refused to press charges even after acknowledging that their two sons and another man came into their house last month, held them down, and cut the father's beard and the mother's hair.
The husband and wife who live near the village of Mesopotamia didn't report the attack and only talked after authorities said they had received a tip, said Trumbull County sheriff Thomas Altiere.
"They want to turn the other cheek, let God take care of it," said Altiere, who lacked enough evidence on his own to make an arrest.
The wife of an Amish bishop who said her husband's beard was cut by members of the same splinter group last week said they decided to press charges so that his attackers would get help and to prevent anyone else from getting hurt.
"This is not for revenge," said Arlene Miller, who recounted how several men came to their farmhouse near Carrollton in eastern Ohio and tried to get at her husband's beard while he struggled with them.
"We don't believe in fighting," she said. "We do believe in turning the other cheek, but in this case there's nothing wrong with struggling to get away."
Two of those arrested a week ago are the sons of the breakaway group's leader, Sam Mullet. He has denied ordering the beard-cuttings but says they were in response to criticism he has received from other Amish religious leaders about his leadership practices, including excommunicating people in his own group.
He lashed out at those who asked law enforcement to get involved.
"One thing for sure is, I'm not calling the law in against one of the other Amish people or against you people," Mullet said at his farm outside Bergholz, a village where he established his community in 1995. "I don't do that. I have no right to call the sheriff to defend myself."
Ohio's Amish communities are centered in rural counties south and east of Cleveland. They have a modest lifestyle and are deeply religious. Their traditions of traveling by horse and buggy and forgoing most modern conveniences distance themselves from the outside world and symbolize a yielding to a collective order.
While it's uncommon for the Amish to take their disputes public and enlist authorities, there is no central authority to decide so it usually falls to the church leaders or those involved.
This year, members of Amish communities in Ohio who federal prosecutors say lost millions in an investment deal operated by a fellow Amish man asked a judge to let them settle the matter out of court. The judge rejected the request.
Authorities in Missouri prosecuted an Amish man a year ago on sexual assault charges after Amish family members of the victims and bishops came to authorities. The prosecution of an Amish individual was very rare in the rural county, said prosecuting attorney Mark Fisher.
"If it weren't for Amish coming forward, we would not even have known about it," he said.
It's more typical for police to get involved if the Amish feel they are in danger or when they're involved in a high-profile crime and have no other choice, said David Weaver-Zercher, a professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
He co-wrote a book, "Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy," after a gunman shot 10 schoolgirls, killing five, inside a one-room schoolhouse five years ago in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.
The Amish were widely praised for their immediate forgiveness after the shooting and reaching out to comfort the gunman's widow.
Interacting with police after the shooting changed some perceptions among the Amish about dealing with law enforcement and created friendships that continue, Weaver-Zercher said.
"Many people gained an increased level of regard or comfort after what happened," he said. "There's often cases where Amish people become close to authorities, and in some ways those walls are lowered."
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