The destruction of their temple last year was the culmination of years of discrimination and harassment for the Caodaists of Tuy An.
The parishioners say they are being punished for rejecting state control of their religion.
Some four million Vietnamese still follow the Cao Dai religion, a syncretic faith founded in the south of Vietnam in the 1920s that combines eastern and western religious teaching.
The battle over the destruction of the Tuy An temple, and the local government’s failure to offer compensation, has underlined the helplessness of independent faith groups in the face of Communist party repression.
The authorities brought in the bulldozers to level the temple, in Phu Yen province north of Nha Trang on April 14 2015, saying they needed the land to enlarge the main north-south highway.
Built in 1972, the temple belonged to Tuy An parish, a group of faith members that identify themselves as part of the original and independent Cao Dai.
The religion is recognised as one of Vietnam’s six organised religions, alongside Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and Hoa Hao Buddhism.
However, the government only authorises practice of the religion for those communities supervised by a state-controlled body: the Cao Dai Administrative Council.
The council was set up after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the faith’s original Holy See at Tay Ninh was outlawed.
Cao Dai followers remain divided between those who are part of the government-managed council and those who insist on their independent religious practice.
Tuy An parish members say they routinely face harassment and intimidation, including difficulties with administrative matters, being monitored by security agents and being banned from overseas travel.
Given this background, they believe the decision to demolish their place of worship was part of an attempt to destroy their community.
Parish members say they were not consulted by the authorities over the demolition.
Instead, the local authorities approached the rival branch of the state sponsored Cao Dai group, which gave its written approval for the flattening of the temple.
Some parish members said that a few days before the bulldozers moved in they were warned by local officials not to stage protests. Others were placed under house surveillance or followed by security agents.
Most revealingly, two houses on either side of the temple site were left untouched, despite official claims that the land was needed for redevelopment.
Harassment or destruction of religious property and worship facilities is a pattern commonly found among independent religious groups in Vietnam.
In September last year, the authorities demolished the 70-year-old Lien Tri Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, which belongs to the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, a body not recognised by the government and which is considered a focal point for independent civil society groups.
Early in 2015 in the Central Highlands, a region known for the harsh repression of independent groups, officials threatened the demolition of a church and the expulsion of a Catholic priest in a diocese in Kontum.
Independent Cao Dai communities in Phan Rang and Tien Giang provinces each had their temples torn down in 2011 and 2013.
The independent groups are clearly viewed by the authorities as posing a threat to national unity, or of having a current or historical anti-communist profile.
Greed, corruption, antipathy
However, on occasion, religious bodies have been able to organise to defend themselves.
In January 2013, the authorities in Hanoi began destroying the historic Carmelite monastery in order to build a new hospital.
The Archbishop of Hanoi, Mgr. Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, wrote a public letter objecting to the “illegal demolition” and calling on the Catholics to “come together to pray” to defend the rights of the church, an intervention which ultimately saved the building.
Similarly, after facing strong protests by nuns and residents, and criticism on social media, Ho Chi Minh city’s District 2 government stopped dismantling education facilities run by the oldest Roman Catholic congregation of women in Vietnam.
Whether the seizures of property are motivated by greed, corruption, or an antipathy toward religion, eviction or demolition of facilities used for worship services remains a looming fear shared by groups of religions or faiths across the country.
Religion considered illegal
After their temple was bulldozed, Tuy An parish members submitted a collective complaint to the government office in May 2015. They requested due process and just compensation for the damage.
The request has received no reply.
Reflecting the situation of Tuy An parish, as well as those of other independent Cao Dai communities nationwide, in his 2014 country visit report, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt observed: “None of the practices of the independent Cao Dai religion have been authorized, and the religion itself is considered illegal. Followers of Cao Dai encounter difficulties even to practice at home. Like other independent communities, they have been pressured, harassed and attacked physically,” said the report.
“Their ritual ceremonies, including funerals, have often been monitored and disrupted. Moreover, they constantly fear losing their jobs and being discriminated against in administrative procedures. Some of their children have also faced difficulty at school.”
Even though Vietnam is no longer listed as a “country of particular concern” in terms of religious freedom by the United States, the situation remains troubling and complex.
This is evidenced by the contrasting experiences of state-sponsored religious organisations versus unregistered groups, as the former have broad freedom to practice their faith while the latter have comparatively little.
With the recent passage of the Law on Religion and Belief, which has been heavily criticised for its failure to conform to international standards, will the Tuy An parishioners and other independent religious communities across the country continue to be pushed further to the periphery of religious life in Vietnam? The answer is as uncertain as whether the government and the larger public will be able able to hear their voices.
By Tran Lap Minh, a writer based in Ho Chi Minh City.