It was a night, thousands of Washington area residents said, not only to party but also to pray.

So against a backdrop of cathedral bells, gospel songs and ancient chants, followers of many faiths greeted the new year in communal worship services, expressing fervent hopes for an upcoming era of more peace, less violence and greater human harmony.

"There is a strong common yearning for peace," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Washington. "We are leaving the bloodiest century in human history and must make the new century in a new millennium a century of peace."

Among the highlights of last night's services was a "millennium message" by South Africa's Anglican archbishop and Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, 68, at the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest.

"In the new millennium perhaps we will discover that we are a family and that we are exhilarated by hope," the physically frail but emotionally passionate churchman said in his 25-minute appearance. "Let us realize our potential."

Tutu, who left the sanctuary in a wheelchair, was given a standing ovation by his 1,800 listeners. Later, the crowd moved outside to hear prayers from eight faiths and observe a moment of silence at 11:59 p.m.

Then, as the cathedral's bells began pealing "Te Deum Laudamus" at midnight, the Mall fireworks appeared in the distant sky. "It's great, it's wonderful," said Donald Beck, 66, a retired government worker from Rockville. "It's a tremendous place to welcome the new year."

Nearby, Roman Catholics filled the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Rhode Island Avenue NW, where Cardinal James A. Hickey celebrated an 11 p.m. Jubilee Year 2000 Mass and called on his flock to "let 2000 be the year when you and I answer, as never before, the call to holiness we received on the day of our baptism."

"If we do nothing else this year," Hickey added, "let us resolve to respond to God's invitation to share, as fully as possible, his life and love in the depths of our hearts and in our relationships with each other."

Many religious services were accompanied by secular celebrations--concerts, meals and dances. National City Christian Church's "Millennium Gala," for example, opened with opera star Denyce Graves singing before a formally attired crowd of 600 in the sanctuary of the Northwest Washington church.

After a dinner, the Rev. Alvin O'Neal Jackson led his congregation in a watch night service, a New Year's Eve tradition among Protestants popular at the turn of the last century. Jackson's remarks focused on the birth of Jesus, calling it "a great movement of God."

In Prince George's, about 11,000 people attended a "Holy Ghost Praise Party" at USAir Arena sponsored by Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church of Fort Washington. After praise songs and preaching, the arena's big screen lit with the dropping Times Square ball as white smoke filled the stage. At midnight, a man dressed as Jesus emerged from the smoke as a church official shouted, "It's time to lift up Jesus!"

Across the street at Landover's Jericho City of Praise, about 8,000 people attended a more reserved marathon service that stretched from 9 p.m. until sunrise. The Rev. Betty Peebles, senior pastor, called her sermon "Y2K," for "Say Yes to the King."

Among Jericho's first arrivals were Johnny and Quintina Walker with their three children from Virginia Beach. "It means a lot to give God the glory and thank Him for the New Year," Quintina Walker said.

Perhaps the earliest millennial service was at Dupont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Southeast D.C., where 200 members gathered to pray at 4:45 p.m. because the denomination teaches that sunset, not the clock, marks the end of a day. "Adventists say . . . it was man and not God that invented the 12 midnight time clock," said member Rocky Twyman.

Smaller events included an 11 p.m. nondenominational candlelight service at Calvary United Methodist Church in Crystal City for more than 100 members of the group Spiritual Singles after a potluck dinner and dancing. "It's a mixture of party and reflecting on the new millennium," said Spiritual Singles' president, Stan Eisenstein, of Beltsville.

In Wheaton, two tiny Baptist churches--New Creation and New Genesis--joined for "Welcoming the Millennium Holistically." Fifty congregants gathered for an 11 p.m. candlelight service followed by a buffet dance and a champagne toast to the new year.

Normally, noted New Genesis's pastor, the Rev. Diane Williams, "Baptists don't do this. They don't have dances, serve alcohol or have jazz bands." But she teaches "that God is in all aspects of our being" and wanted the two-part celebration "so people didn't feel they had to come to service and then sneak away to a secular celebration."

At their Manassas monastery, 39 Benedictine Sisters of Virginia began their millennial watch at 8 p.m., said the prioress, Sister Andrea Verchuck. Aiming to recite the entire Psalter of 150 Psalms overnight, the nuns prayed "straight through till 5:30" a.m., she added, concluding with special prayers to the Virgin Mary.

Although the year 2000 holds religious significance principally for Christians, many non-Christians marked its arrival with spiritual observances because, like it or not, they said, the Christian-inspired calendar dominates the global village.

"We live in this world, and it is a matter of the date or time set up by the society which we live in," said Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, leader of the Sikh community's Guru Goband Singh Foundation, a Rockville temple that reverberated at midnight with nearly 300 members "chanting God's name."

"We congratulate our Christian friends who are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ who . . . gave a message of love and peace," added Singh. "But for our purpose, this time is to welcome a new millennium that will fight the problems of humanity: hunger, violence and social injustice."

Midnight also found nearly 100 members of the Tibetan Buddhist temple in Poolesville reciting mantras and offering food, fragrant smoke and candles as they prayed for peace, said spokeswoman Maura Daly. Though the Buddhist calendar is in its 2,126th year, members marked the new year "because so much weight is attached to it" by others, Daly added.

For many Jews, festivities were tempered by the fact that New Year's fell on their Sabbath, which began at sundown yesterday. Moreover, 2000 carries no religious meaning for Jews and Muslims, now observing years 5760 and 1420 of their respective calendars. "For us, it's just another Friday night," said Rabbi Jack Moline, of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. "The millennium isn't for another 240 years."

There were exceptions, including a post-Shabbat service dinner for 200 and dancing to klezmer music at Adas Israel, in Northwest Washington, to celebrate, planners said, the millennium and the 130th anniversary of the congregation's founding.

CAPTION: South African Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, before delivering his 25-minute "millennium message" to 1,800 people at Washington National Cathedral.