WIDESPREAD criticism has been levelled at Bolton Council for scrapping the town's annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony.

Town Hall chiefs have instead decided to hold an event as part of a genocide memorial day in June.

The council says that would be more inclusive.

But the decision to scrap the Holocaust Memorial event - made following consultation with Bolton Interfaith Council - has triggered criticism from religious leaders and councillors, some of whom said they were unaware of the move.

Liberal Democrat councillor Richard Silvester said: "I am thoroughly ashamed at the decision of Bolton Council and the Bolton Interfaith Council. I believe this is disgraceful and I am embarrassed to call myself a representative of this town."

Services are being held across the world to mark Holocaust Memorial Day today, which commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Between 1940 and 1945, the Nazis killed about 1.5 million people at Auschwitz, mainly Jews but also Poles, gipsies, Russian prisoners of war and people of other nationalities.

Millions died in other concentration camps.

Bolton has held an annual ceremony in the Town Hall for the last seven years, which has been overseen by Rabbi Joseph Lever of the United Synagogue. Candles have been lit by children.

But this year, the flying of the Town Hall flags at half-mast on Sunday will be the only sign of remembrance.

Rabbi Lever said: "I was very upset not to be consulted about the decision and I mourn the fact that the ceremony will not be going ahead in Bolton.

"Schoolchildren have been involved and it was always a moving ceremony which would be attended by a sizeable crowd."

Cllr Silvester said: "The Holocaust should be remembered for all of the people who were persecuted and died, not just Jews, but disabled people, the mentally ill, Romanies, black people, old people, gay and lesbian people."

Labour councillor Frank White, Bolton Council's executive member for cohesion, said: "Councillors are appalled that this decision has been made without the consultation that this serious subject needs. It is sending out all the wrong messages.

"The service has always been sensitive and inclusive of all religions in the town. But this is not just about religion, it is about remembering an evil power who tried to persecute the disabled, sick, homosexual and others."

David Arnold, from north Manchester, is a Holocaust educator and has advised local councils and the Home Office about Holocaust Memorial Days.

He said: "Whoever made the decision failed to understand how the lessons of the Holocaust should challenge us to face up to the fact that racism, prejudice and intolerance still exist in today's society.

"The kindest thing I can say about this decision is that it is a gross error of misjudgement."

Louis Rapaport, president of the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester, said: "There may not be many Jews in Bolton, but the day is supposed to have an educational message to the whole community.

"I can't help feeling the decision was influenced by Bolton's large Muslim community."

Bolton Interfaith Council, which is made up of Christian, Muslim and Hindu representatives, suggested the idea of Genocide Memorial Day to Bolton Council.

Tony McNeile, secretary of the Interfaith Council, said a general memorial day would be more inclusive of all faiths.

He added: "It does not mean bypassing the Holocaust or ignoring it because it will be included in the memorial day in June. It is one of the great tragedies of the world, but it is not the only one."

The Vicar of Bolton, Canon Michael Williams, who is treasurer of the Interfaith Council, said: "The service is a bit artificial because we have never had a Jewish community to support it.

"By changing the day it makes the point that it is not about one genocide, but it is about many."

A Bolton Council statement said: "We are hoping that by supporting the Interfaith Council's idea to join with Genocide Memorial Day and by holding an outdoors event, it will allow many more people to become involved.

"The change does not mean that the Holocaust is being ignored. It will be remembered as part of the Genocide event, which the Interfaith Council feels will be more inclusive."

Cllr Cliff Morris, Leader of Bolton Council, refused to say who made the final decision to cancel the ceremony.

"The Interfaith Council has always organised the event and Bolton Council went along with their recommendation," he said.

"We did not want to upset anyone or snub the Holocaust. It will be marked in June and the flag will still be flown at half-mast this weekend."

In neighbouring Bury, faith and political leaders joined the public for a service at Bury Town Hall to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Thursday.