VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II used an emotional first meeting with Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa Thursday to tell the Soviet Union not to interfere in the struggle beween workers and the government in his native Poland.
The deeply religious Walesa, who fell to his knees in prayer at the first sight of the pope and had to be coaxed to stand, said his independent union was working to protect human and religious freedom but was 'not a political group and we never shall be.'
John Paul praised Solidarity for its handling of five months of negotiations with Poland's Communist leaders, and in a thinly veiled reference to possible Soviet intervention, said the confrontation was strictly an internal affair that threatened no one.
The meeting between the two Polish men who have put their country at the forefront of world events came on the third day of Walesa's visit to Italy, his first trip outside his homeland.
'The activity of the unions does not have a political character and must not be an instrument of anyone, of any political party, if it is to concentrate in an exclusive and full way on the great social good of human labor and men of labor,' the pope said.
'This is truly and continues to be a strictly internal problem among all Poles' and is 'not a revolt against anyone,' the pope said of the Solidarity-government confrontation.
'Carrying out such efforts is a right, even a duty, of any society, of any nation,' John Paul said.
The pope praised both Solidarity and Polish authorities for carrying out their talks 'free of violence and domination ... and taking account of the common good.'
Walesa, 37, sporting a fresh haircut and crisp grey suit, stood at the pope's right and affirmed his union movement did not intend to change the political direction of Poland.
'Men must help their neighbor, their fellow men. This we learned from you, Holy Father,' Walesa told the pope, using the personal form of Polsh as if talking to an old friend.
The public meeting between Walesa and John Paul came after the two met privately for 25 minutes, then were joined by Walesa's wife Miroslawa and finally by the 14-member Solidarity delegation accompanying the union leader.
Walesa presented the pope with a model of the recently built monument to workers killed at the Gdansk shipyards during a worker rebellion 10 years ago.