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updated 10/6/2011 7:16:53 PM ET 2011-10-06T23:16:53

A group of religious castoffs has been attacking fellow Amish, cutting off their hair and beards in an apparent feud over spiritual differences in the deeply traditional community, a sheriff said Thursday.

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Members of a group of families disavowed by mainstream Amish have cut the beards off men and the hair off a half-dozen or more men and women, Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla said. He said the cutting apparently was meant to be degrading.

The attacks occurred over the past three weeks in the heart of Ohio's Amish population, one of the largest in the United States.

A 57-year-old woman blamed her sons and a son-in-law for an attack on her husband and said they were involved in a cult. She pointed at her husband's short, ragged, short beard, then took off a bandanna and showed bare patches on her scalp.

"They did this to me," she told deputies, according to a Sept. 6 report.

The Amish often shun modern conveniences as matter of spiritual principle. It's common practice for married Amish to have beards, and "Likewise, women do not cut their hair based on biblical teaching," Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College and an expert on Amish life, said in an email to The Associated Press.

He said Amish-on-Amish violence "is extremely rare."

No charges have been filed, but several victims suffered minor injuries, Abdalla said.

The investigation has been hampered by the traditional reluctance of Amish to turn to law enforcement. Abdalla said it was frustrating.

"You see this crime being committed, and I'm sitting here with my hands tied," he said. "I can't do a thing."

Abdalla said the motive may be related to unspecified religious differences involving 18 Amish families, 17 of them related, who have drawn previous attention from law enforcement, including a threat against the sheriff and a relative convicted of sexual contact with a minor.

No contact number could be found in court records for the sex offender or in phone listings for his family members.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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