Forty children have been taken from a Christian sect in Bavaria, southern Germany, following police raids at a monastery and a farm after accusations of child abuse.
The children, aged between seven months and 17 years old, are members of the Twelve Tribes sect, which has its roots in the US. They have been placed with foster families while the group is being investigated.
The group, whose teachings are based on the Old and New Testament, is known to believe in corporal punishment. It had been under observation by authorities for some time, particularly for its refusal to send its children to school.
Teaching licences were recently withdrawn from the sect's own school near the town of Deiningen, near Augsburg, with inspectors declaring its teachers unfit.
The sect's two complexes were sealed off on Friday as officials explained that Thursday's dawn raids, carried out over three and a half hours by 100 police officers, were prompted by "fresh evidence indicating significant and ongoing child abuse by the members".
Police said they were looking to press charges against the parents and the sect's chief, 54-year-old Detlef Markell, who has professed his innocence.
By to their own admission, parents of the Twelve Tribes, which has around 100 members in two locations in Bavaria where it has had a base for 15 years, are instructed to beat their children "with a small reed-like rod which only inflicts pain and no damage".
On its website, the group declares itself to be an "open and transparent community that does not tolerate any form of child abuse. Our children grow up in a loving environment and are educated in the spirit of charity."
But Helmut Beyschlag, head of Noldingen district court, said: "We suspect that parents were exercising abuse."
According to initial reports, the disciplinary rods used were soaked in oil to make them more pliable during a beating, when children were allegedly struck on their bare feet, arms and backs, inside the former Cistercian monastery.
Eyewitnesses to the police raids said no resistance was shown, and that as the children were removed they showed no emotion towards their parents.
The Twelve Tribes lives a self-sufficient existence, producing its own food and electricity. As well as resisting the state education of its children, it also rejects sex education and the women (known as "sisters") of the sect are subservient to the men (known as "brothers"). The members believe themselves to be descended from early Christians.
Following a magazine investigation last year in which the abuse allegations were raised, the sect strongly denied allegations abuse, declaring: "We are an open and transparent community which does not tolerate any form of child abuse."
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