ABUJA, Nigeria — A stampede Saturday at a church charity sale in southern Nigeria left 31 people dead, police told The Associated Press, a shocking development at an event that organizers said aimed to “offer hope” to the needy.

The stampede at the program organized by the Kings Assembly pentecostal church in Rivers state involved many people who were seeking assistance, according to Grace Iringe-Koko, a police spokesperson in the state.

Many of the victims came to an annual “Shop for Free” charity program organized by the church. Such events are common in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, where more than 80 million people live in poverty, according to government statistics.

Saturday’s charity program was supposed to begin at 9 a.m. but dozens arrived as early as 5 a.m. to secure their place in line, Iringe-Koko said. Somehow they broke open the locked gate, she said, noting that in addition to the deaths, seven other people were injured but “responding to treatment.”

Videos from the scene showed the clothing and shoes meant for the beneficiaries. Doctors and emergency workers treated some of the injured as they lay in the open field.

The “Shop for Free” event was suspended while authorities investigated how the stampede occurred.